The Hidden Costs of Money

Peter Singer

When people say “Money is the root of all evil,” they don’t usually mean that it is money itself that is the root of evil. Like Paul, from whom the quote comes, they have in mind the love of money. Could money itself, whether we are greedy for it or not, be a problem?

Karl Marx thought so. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a youthful work that remained unpublished and largely unknown until the mid-twentieth century, Marx described money as “the universal agent of separation,” because it transforms human characteristics into something else. A man may be ugly, Marx wrote, but if he has money, he can buy for himself “the most beautiful of women.” Without money, presumably, some more positive human qualities would be needed. Money alienates us, Marx thought, from our true human nature and from our fellow human beings.

Marx’s reputation sank once it became evident that he was wrong to predict a workers’ revolution that would usher in a new era with a better life for everyone. So if we had only his word for the alienating effects of money, we might feel free to dismiss it as an element of a misguided ideological outlook. But research by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Goode, reported in Science in 2006, suggests that on this point, at least, Marx was onto something.

In a series of experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found ways of getting people to think about money without explicitly telling them to do so. They gave some people tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money. With others, they left piles of Monopoly™ money nearby. Another group saw a screensaver with various denominations of money. Other people, randomly selected, unscrambled phrases that were not about money, did not see Monopoly™ money, or saw screensavers unrelated to money. In each case, those who had been led to think about money—let’s call them “the money group”—behaved differently than those who had not.

  • When given a difficult task and told that help was available, people in the money group took longer to ask for help.
  • When asked for help, people in the money group spent less time helping.
  • When told to move their chair so they could talk with someone else, people in the money group left a greater distance between the chairs.
  • When asked to choose a leisure activity, people in the money group were more likely to choose an activity that could be enjoyed alone rather than one that involved others.
  • Finally, when people in the money group were invited to donate some of the money they had been paid for participation in the experiment, they gave less than those who had not been induced to think about money.

The trivial reminders of money made a surprisingly large difference. For example, where the control group would offer to spend an average of forty-two minutes helping someone with a task, those primed to think about money offered only twenty-five minutes. Similarly, when someone pretending to be another participant in the experiment asked for help, members of the money group spent only half as much time helping her. When asked to make a donation from their earnings, those in the money group gave just a little over half as much as those in the control group.

Why does money make us less willing to seek or give help or even to sit close to others? Vohs and her colleagues suggest that as societies began to use money, the necessity of relying on family and friends diminished; people were able to become more self-sufficient. “In this way,” they conclude, “money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people’s responses today.” That’s not much of an explanation of why merely being reminded of money should make so much difference regarding how we act, given that we all use money every day. There seems to be something going on here that we still don’t fully understand.

I am not pleading for a return to the simpler days of barter or self-sufficiency. Money enables us to trade fluidly and so to benefit from each other’s special skills and advantages. Without money, we would be immeasurably poorer and not only in a financial sense. But now that we are aware of the isolating power that even the thought of money can have, we can no longer think of the role of money as entirely neutral. If, for example, a local parents’ organization wants to build a children’s playground, should it ask its members to do the work on a voluntary basis, or should it launch a fund-raising campaign so that an outside contractor can be employed? If money were neutral, this would simply be a question of

whether the benefits of using money outweigh the costs. Often they will—for example, if the parents lack the skills to build a good playground. But it would be a mistake to assume that allowing money to dominate every sphere of life comes without costs.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, Writings on an Ethical Life, One World, and, most recently, Pushing Time Away.

When people say “Money is the root of all evil,” they don’t usually mean that it is money itself that is the root of evil. Like Paul, from whom the quote comes, they have in mind the love of money. Could money itself, whether we are greedy for it or not, be a problem? Karl …

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