NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Rich people aren't exactly known for being magnanimous. We already knew that rich people are less charitable and tend to ignore those beneath them. But now it turns out that you don't have to be rich to suffer from financial insensitivity.
A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that mere exposure to money makes us less emotionally perceptive.
This recent paper found that "thinking about money increases individuals' disposition to perceive themselves in a business-like relationship with others in which transactions are based on objective criteria and the expression of emotion is considered inappropriate," as the study's abstract puts it. Simply seeing subtle reminders of money predisposes people to demonstrate less emotion in public -- and expect others to do the same.
People who've been "money-primed" -- those who have had the idea of money put into their heads -- avoid expressing emotion to others verbally and in written communications. They also judge others' emotions to be more extreme and try to avoid interacting with openly emotional people.
"These two consequences certainly have a negative impact on social connection," says study author Yuwei Jiang. "Emotional expression shows to others what we feel and what we need, so it's a facilitator for interpersonal relationships. It is difficult to make friends with a Poker Face, or a Tin Man I guess, because you don't know what he or she feels. That makes it difficult to react to or empathize with him or her."
So the more we are around money or think about our own finances, the less we're able to express our emotions or pick up on other people's cues. These findings may hearken back to cartoon-character clichés about a Mr. Moneybags who can't form connections with people, but this makes us wonder: if we play our cards right, make all the proper financial moves and successfully build our wealth, are we destined to become Grinches incapable of human connection?
Maybe, Jiang says.
"This paper focuses on the impact of mere exposure to money, so strictly speaking, it's independent of the possession of money," he said. "But considering that in real life rich individuals may have more contact with money-related daily issues -- investments, purchasing items, etc., it's possible that being financially affluent will impede people's emotional expression, thus causing some trouble in social interactions."
One of Jiang's other ongoing research projects has found that "money priming" leads people to focus more on other people's competence instead of warmth. Jiang says, "When interacting with others, money-primed individuals focus more on competence-related personal attributes such as intelligence, efficiency, job positions, etc. than warmth-related attributes" such as how loving or caring he is. In fact, prior research done by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues also suggested that mere exposure to money makes people feel self-sufficient, Jiang says.
"Thus, they will be less likely to help others, less likely ask for others' help, and in general less likely to interact with others," he says.
All the same, there may be a positive side to this "moneybags syndrome." In contexts where it's helpful to exhibit a lack of emotion and to push logical thinking and cognitive capacity over emotional sensitivity, priming yourself with money might actually be useful. For instance, if you work in a hardcore office environment that doesn't have much time or sympathy for weakness, it might be helpful to mute your normal emotional reaction when a harsh boss is curt with you. Similarly, encouraging your inner intellectual rationalist might help you make sense of tricky situations--and how best to navigate them--without letting emotions cloud your judgment.
And for those times you don't want your emotional connections to suffer just because you are accruing wealth and working toward a healthy financial life? "We do not directly investigate this in the paper," Jiang says, but one obvious cure would simply be not to think about money all the time.
"The above effects are triggered by exposure to or thinking of money, so if you do not think about money, the effect will be less," he said.
One way to avoid the Scrooge effect is to use indirect currencies like personal checks or coupons instead of cash, Jiang says.
"Vohs and colleagues showed previously that the money prime effects are attenuated for indirect types of currencies," he said, so using proxies for cash might prevent us from suffering these emotional blocks. Beyond that, you might dodge the emotion-numbing effect by setting aside a time to deal with your finances, such as an hour or two over the weekend or a regular monthly check-in. Make your plans, schedule your payments, crunch those numbers and then forget about it. You can enjoy the confidence of knowing that you've done right by yourself, but you don't need to check in excessively or think about your money in order to ensure a secure and comfortable future.
--Written by Allison Kade for MainStreet.