The disparities that arose between the two groups as they went about various tasks were surprising. The non-money group spent an average of three minutes on a difficult puzzle before giving in and asking for help, while members of the money group tinkered away for more than five minutes. Members of the non-money group also spent about twice as much time helping a struggling peer with the puzzle than those in the money group.
Vohs employed other strategies of bringing money to mind, with similar results. People who stared at a money-related screensaver ended up seating themselves farther away from a later conversational partner. And subjects who had more money left over after a Monopoly game were less likely to help a passerby who dropped her pencils. Being exposed to money, Vohs and her co-authors concluded, made people less helpful. This is the case because with money comes a sense of self-sufficiency, they reasoned.
In 2012, a replication of the study failed to turn up the same results that Vohs found, but before then, a handful of other researchers had already started to investigate other possible effects of priming people with money. Even though this replication casts some doubt on Vohs's findings, these other researchers, some using Vohs's own priming method, have observed significant behavioral changes in their subjects.
Wharton’s Cassie Mogilner published a paper in 2010 comparing the results of priming people with money to when they were primed with time. People with time on their mind were more likely to prioritize social interactions, while the money group worked longer and socialized less. And in February 2013, a study in Marketing Letters observed that priming people with money made them more likely to buy a pack of batteries than a slice of cake—a choice the researchers took to mean that money-primed people to prefer utilitarian options over hedonistic ones. Three months later, another study came out suggesting that being exposed to money made people more likely to behave unethically; in these experiments, money-primed subjects were more willing to lie to make money in a simple game and were more likely to rate certain scenarios, such as swiping extra office supplies for personal use, as ethically permissible.
Which brings us to 2014. By now, research has indicated that simply thinking about money turns people into antisocial, unethical pragmatists who are unwilling to help strangers. The soon-to-be-published Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study suggests we should add “stoic” to that description. The study, devised by a team divided between three universities in Hong Kong, tracked the visibility of subjects’ emotions after they looked at pictures of money, seashells, furniture, or leaves. (Sometimes they unscrambled money-related sentences, just like in Vohs’s study.) When asked to perform various tasks—such as writing negative reviews on Amazon or describing a funny scene from a movie—subjects primed with money were more reluctant to express their emotions. The researchers theorize that thinking about money forces people into a business mentality, a mindset in which it’s considered advantageous to hide your feelings.