Can the Presence of Money Reduce Pain?
By Steve Gillman - November 22, 2014
Money 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
(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.