Does Thinking About Money Make You a Bad Person?

Most people would agree that time and money are very important things in life, second to or on part with love, healthy, and family. But can dwelling too much on one or the other influence your overall ethical character? According to a study reported in The Atlanticthe mere thought of trying to acquire more money — even by honest means — can make you a bad person.

“The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the “upper-class” was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It’s not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing.

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition.

The pernicious influence of greed, consumerism, and materialism is nothing new or controversial. But the idea that merely thinking about these things primes negative behaviors and ideas is an interesting one — and probably something most people would find contentious. After all, we’ve all thought about wanting to make more money at some point in our lives, so does that mean we’re periodically tempted to be dishonest or exploitative?

Well, why not? It’s not too difficult a conclusion for me to swallow, personally. Few human beings are ever consistent in their moral or ethical character, and most of us find ourselves frequently faced with temptations to do bad things (and justify them) for our own gain. So the idea that we can get carried away with our own desires, even if we don’t mean to be, isn’t terribly surprising.

And what about the influence of time?

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. “Even good people can and often do bad things,” Gino said in an email conversation. “People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral.”

In other words, if you make a habit of thinking about the bigger picture — what little time we have left to accomplish our goals or spend time with our loved ones, for example — you’re more likely to realize the error of your poor, short-term judgements.

It gets more interesting:

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. (“Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry”; “I’m not stealing from this national bank, I’m adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution”; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

Many people associate criminality and immorality with poverty and ignorance; but more often than not, the intelligent and otherwise well-off person has every reason to be a bad person — literally, they’re smart enough to figure out reasons to justify their malevolent actions. To me, this drives home the often neglected point that there is a difference between intelligence in terms of cognitive ability — retaining, learning, analyzing, and so on — and knowing about ethics, morality, empathy, and other things that underpin benevolent behavior.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. “In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay,” she said.

Introspection is key. Take more time to think about things and weigh the consequences and long-term implications. It’s not easy, but the potential rewards — for you, your loved ones, and the wider society — are vast. But in a world dominated by money, materialism, and cutthroat competition, this is even more challenging. It’s easy to justify dishonest behavior when you’re struggling in an increasingly inequitable and cynical world.


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