Just Touching Money Is Enough to Turn Kids Mean

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There’s something wonderfully anachronistic about the phrase money-grubbing. It’s in the tactile, physical nature of the insult — most people now walk around each day without any cash in their wallets, and yet we still call out greed by conjuring up an image of someone clutching fistfuls of dollar bills.

Which actually is kind of fitting, considering what the act of handling money can do to our brains. Past research has shown that holding currency in our hands can have a powerful effect on our behavior, increasing our motivation but lessening our feelings of goodwill towards others. (As Lisa Miller has written for New York Magazine, some research suggests that “living high on the socioeconomic ladder” also makes people “less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate.”)

And in Scientific American this week, a team of psychologists highlighted an unpleasant finding from their work: This change happens even in people too young to actually use money. Over a series of experiments, the researchers discovered that kids as young as 3 become more selfish and less willing to help after they’ve touched bills and coins:

We instructed some children to sort money by denomination, while others sorted buttons by color. They then went to a different room where their performance on a difficult task was put to the test. They were given a maze to solve and were told they could quit at any time. Money sorters worked longer and were more successful at solving the maze than button sorters. In another experiment, 3-year-olds sorted coins and banknotes, or buttons and paper slips, before moving to a different room. There they met an experimenter who asked for their help readying materials for the next child she would test. She gave them a basket and asked the children to bring her as many red crayons as they could from a box in the far corner of the room. Money sorters were less helpful, overall, than button and paper sorters.

A similar experiment — this time where the children were asked to help other kids, rather than adults — yielded the same effect:

We had children sort buttons, money, or something highly desirable—candy. After that task, children were informed that they could take up to six Disney stickers for themselves. Children were then told they could give away some of their stickers to other children who didn’t participate, or they could keep them for themselves. Money sorters were more selfish than candy and button sorters. Money sorters took more stickers for themselves and donated half as many stickers compared to button or candy sorters.

“Young children show evidence of some remarkably advanced complex concepts such as justice, religion, and physics. Despite not being able to articulate it, children’s minds have formed adult-like connections for these concepts,” they wrote. “Money, for good or bad, can be added to this list.” Even before kids know the difference between a nickel and a quarter, it seems, they’re already absorbing ideas about what money is, and what money does, and learning to behave accordingly. Something to think about next time you bust open the Monopoly set.