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The Hidden Costs of Money

PRINCETON – When people say that “Money is the root of all evil,” they usually don’t mean that money itself is the root of evil. Like Saint Paul, from whom the quote comes, they have in mind the love of money. Could money itself, whether we are greedy for it or not, be a problem?

Karl Marx thought so. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a youthful work that remained unpublished and largely unknown until the mid-twentieth century, Marx describes money as “the universal agent of separation,” because it transforms human characteristics into something else. A man may be ugly, Marx wrote, but if he has money, he can buy for himself “the most beautiful of women.” Without money, presumably, some more positive human qualities would be needed. Money alienates us, Marx thought, from our true human nature and from our fellow human beings.

Marx’s reputation sank once it became evident that he was wrong to predict that a workers’ revolution would usher in a new era with a better life for everyone. So if we had only his word for the alienating effects of money, we might feel free to dismiss it as an element of a misguided ideology. But research by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Goode, reported in Science in 2006, suggests that on this point, at least, Marx was onto something.

In a series of experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found ways to get people to think about money without explicitly telling them to do so. They gave some people tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money. With others, they left piles of Monopoly money nearby. Another group saw a screensaver with various denominations of money. Other people, randomly selected, unscrambled phrases that were not about money, did not see Monopoly money, and saw different screensavers. In each case, those who had been led to think about money – let’s call them “the money group” – behaved differently from those who had not.