Cold Hard Cash May Be More Than a Metaphor


Engage in a little thought experiment with me. Picture a stack of cash. Imagine yourself counting each crisp bill, one by one. How do you feel? Do you have a slight chill?

A recent study suggests “cold hard cash” is more than a metaphor.

It's not news that money has profound effects on human behavior, many of them negative. Leonie Reutner, a researcher studying social and consumer psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, wanted to know if money has an impact on the body itself.

Reutner and a team of researchers from the University of Basel and the University of Salzburg in Austria came up with a simple hypothesis: If money has been connected to socially “cold” behavior, can money cause a physical sensation of coldness?

They set out to test the hypothesis with two studies. In one, participants dipped a hand into a jar filled with about $1300 in banknotes. The control group put a hand into a jar filled with pieces of paper of the same size and color as the banknotes. They then asked the test subjects to estimate the temperature of the room. (To disguise the purpose of the experiment, they also asked them to make some other random estimates, including the size of the room.) Those who dipped their hand in the money jar “gave significantly lower estimates of room temperature,” the researchers write. “Money did not affect any of the other estimates, indicating that priming money had an influence on temperature perception only.”

In the second study, they asked a different set of subjects to submerge their hands for 10 seconds into bowls of water heated to exactly 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and estimate the water’s temperature. As in the first study, participants then dipped their hands into one of two jars, one stuffed with money and the other with similarly sized pieces of paper. Meanwhile, the water in the bowls had cooled to 31.14 degrees Celsius. When participants returned their hands to the cooler water, researchers cranked the heat back up and asked the subjects to say “stop” when it had warmed to its original temperature. People who handled money perceived the original temperature as lower.

“The idea is similar to your body adapting to a frigid temperature outside and then going inside and feeling very hot,” Reutner told the Wall Street Journal. “The colder you are, the warmer the room feels in contrast to your body.”

The researchers claim this chilly feeling is caused by exposure to money. “Our findings offer fascinating insights into how money makes people feel,” they write. “While money won’t make anyone’s heart turn to cold stone, it does make the body feel colder.”

The potential link between "cold" social behavior and actual physical coldness may seem a bit simplistic, but "a relatively large number of studies are consistent with these findings,” says Norbert Schwarz, provost professor at the University of Southern California’s Department of Psychology and Marshall School of Business.

The authors cite a series of nine studies from 2006 which found that people “primed” with money by handling or thinking about it performed "independent but socially insensitive actions,” meaning they were more self-reliant but treated others worse. Compared to participants who were not reminded of money, those primed with money were more likely to work and play alone, and less likely to help a person in need or donate to a fundraiser. They also "put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance,” the authors wrote.

Another study replicated these findings in the real world.  People who had just withdrawn money from an ATM were far less likely to help a passerby requesting assistance. In one part of the study, just 60 percent of ATM users alerted a fellow pedestrian that they’d dropped their bus pass. Of those who hadn’t gotten money from the ATM, 96 percent had the courtesy to tell the person they’d lost something.