Can the Presence of Money Reduce Pain?

By - November 22, 2014

Wad of CashMoney is important to people - there's nothing new in that. But according to the latest research the symbolic power of money goes beyond mere desire for it or our willingness to do various things for it. Apparently just handling currency has the power to alter our experiences.

(Flickr photo by Andrew Magill)

In the journal Psychological Science Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister published a paper in late 2009 called "The Symbolic Power of Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain." Their research looked at how money could reduce pain in a person and also lessen one's need for social popularity.

A few scientists had previously speculated that because people get what they want from society using either social popularity or with money, that money might substitute for social acceptance. It had also been hypothesized that because responses to physical pain and social distress share common underlying processes, money might alleviate physical pain. That last idea is the most radical part of this work.

In the studies done by Zhou and the others, there were three findings that are most relevant to these ideas:

1. Creating social exclusion and physical pain in subjects increased their desire for money.

2. Having or handling money can lessen both physical and emotional pain.

3. Losing money or being reminded of having spent it increases physical and emotional pain.

I won't get into how all of these experiments were done (there were six different ones, and you might still find the details online in various places), but I'll quickly describe one...

Subjects were told they were engaging in a dexterity test and instructed to count out either eighty one-hundred dollar bills or eighty pieces of paper. Subjects hands were then immobilized and hot water was poured on their fingers. They were then asked to rate how painful this was, and those who had counted the money versus the paper reported significantly lower levels of pain.

My Thinking on the Power of Money

The research is interesting, and raises some questions that I hope are addressed at some point in future research. For example, in all research of this sort averages are looked at, but I wonder how many subjects, if exposed to both parts of the experiments, would be found to be unaffected by money? The ability of money to relieve pain or substitute for social acceptance has to do with the individual psychology of each person after all, and with different beliefs and approaches perhaps money would not be so powerful an agent for people.

If you get where I am going with this, I'm suggesting that perhaps it is mistaken ideas that make a person find comfort in the symbolism alone of money (they didn't get to keep the money they counted). Maybe if we had a healthier attitude about the need for social acceptance and the proper role of money we wouldn't be so affected by the mere presence or thought of it. This doesn't deny the research findings, but suggests that they tell only part of the story.

To use a crude analogy, an aspirin will help a headache that comes from banging your head against the wall, but perhaps it is more important to understand why you bang your head against the wall. To put this in the context of one of the findings, maybe if we did not encourage our need for social acceptance we would not need money to substitute for it or relieve the pain of not getting it.

As for the physical pain reduction, this can be accomplished by other means, such as focusing attention elsewhere or mentally "watching" your pain as an observer (experiments you can do yourself to prove the effect). That money does the same thing might suggest its value in relieving pain, but it could also be seen as an indication of an obsessiveness modern people have with it - to their detriment. After all, for all their risks, many hard drugs will relieve pain, especially the pain of withdrawal, but this is not necessarily the most useful finding.

I'm not against the idea of the power of money, as you know. I think it can be used for many good things and is more powerful than we might think if used well. But to the extent that it has the power to alter our perceptions of emotional or physical pain, I think that is less a "good power" and more a symptom of something wrong in our thinking. I also suspect I am as subject to the effect as most others.

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