July 24, 2012 at 7:31 AM ET
Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” monologue branded him as the ultimate white-collar bad guy, a craven mercenary who would exploit anyone in pursuit of the almighty dollar. A new research paper finds that, deep down, many of us think like that, and all it takes to bring out our inner Gekkos is a seemingly innocuous reference to money.
“Activating the concept of money outside of people’s awareness can have subtle influences on the beliefs people report,” said Eugene M. Caruso, lead author and associate professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
The concept of social Darwinism is nothing new, but what researchers found and presented in the paper, "Mere Exposure to Money Increases Endorsement of Free-Market Systems and Social Inequality," is that just planting the idea of money in people’s minds triggers them to make social judgements using free-market, “survival of the fittest” principles. Something as small as a few words or a briefly viewed image is enough to make people more likely to endorse inequality and eschew compassion.
In one experiment, subjects performed a task online and saw an onscreen background of U.S. currency. The control group performed the same task but without the image of money visible. Then, both groups were asked questions to assess their beliefs. People who saw the picture of money were more likely to express a belief that current structures and policies are right even if they introduce or legitimize inequality.
In another experiment, subjects played a word game that included words associated with money; the control group played the same game with neutral words. In follow-up questions, the participants exposed to money were more likely to express a belief researchers termed “social dominance orientation” — the idea that some people are better than others and that a hierarchy enforcing this is appropriate.
The researchers’ most chilling experiment showed just how deep these seemingly subtle references to money penetrate people’s consciousness.
After similar exposure to money as in the first experiment, the test and control groups were both told that America’s current system of organ donation is designed to benefit the least fortunate patients, but that other countries have a free-market approach — greater wealth means faster, better access to a donated organ. Subjects were then asked to compare the two systems and assess which would be better in the United States. Those who had been exposed to money expressed a much stronger preference for the pay-to-play model.
Kathleen Vohs, another of the paper’s authors and a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, said extreme examples like these show how applying financial metrics to social justice issues “reinforce[s] favorable attitudes toward existing systems that favor the socially advantaged.”
Researchers also tested the theory that a monetary reference would make people more cold-hearted and emotionally distant. Subjects were “primed” with a reference to money and then administered a questionnaire about personal values. Compared with a control group that didn’t receive a reference to money, researchers wrote, “Findings indicated that increased distance toward and decreased concern for others was further evidenced in participants’ lower levels of empathy and compassion for people who were suffering.”
Financial scandals like the collapses of MF Global Holdings and Peregrine Financial Group, LIBOR-rigging allegations and Bernie Madoff’s giant ponzi scheme always prompt the question of how a person could do something like that. Although the researchers didn’t study financial scandals, Vohs said the same principles could be at work.
“To the extent that people reminded of money think about free markets as being the arbiter of who gets resources and who does not, then we can speculate that people who take advantage of others under the context of wanting or having money might see their behaviors as the type of ‘natural’ predator behaviors seen in the wild,” she said.
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