Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Money Degrades Our Ability to Empathize

• September 19, 2012 • 9:32 AM

New research finds that offering people money makes them less likely to correctly infer another person’s emotional state.

Given the tone-deaf comments a wealthy political figure recently made while addressing some equally affluent donors, you’d almost think money makes a person less able to relate to the feelings of others.

And, according to newly published research, you’d be absolutely right.

“Financial incentives lead individuals to see themselves as less interdependent with others, and consequently render them less able to accurately infer what others are feeling,” report psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich.

Specifically, they found people judged the emotional states of others less accurately when they were offered a monetary reward for a correct response. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they describe two experiments that produced these counterintuitive results.

The first featured 49 students from the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were assigned to watch two videos of individuals discussing something they had recently experienced, and then to infer what those people were feeling.

Half were told that if they answered accurately, they would receive $100 at the end of the academic quarter. The other half were told they would “earn points in a game,” which could ultimately result in a financial prize.

Participants who were directly offered the cash incentive were less accurate in their assessments than those who were playing for points. In other words, they were less likely to list emotions that matched those which the people in the videos reported experiencing.

A second experiment, featuring 123 students, was set up similarly, except the financial incentive (or lack thereof) was made more concrete. Half were told the participants who most accurately judged the subjects’ emotions would receive a $40 gift card. The others were offered no incentive of any kind.

Once again, “when we offered individuals a monetary reward for accurately inferring others’ emotions, their ability to make accurate inferences decreased, relative to individuals who were not offered any monetary reward,” the researchers write.

“These findings are particularly compelling given that, in both studies, it (literally) paid to be empathically accurate,” Ma-Kellams and Blascovich note. “Despite the fact that correctly inferring the emotional states of others would have resulted in financial gain, individuals who focused on the monetary payoff performed worse relative to those who did not.”

These results suggest that the thought of making money causes people to be “more focused on self-related concerns, and less able to empathically infer others’ feelings,” they write.

The researchers note that this may help explain the casually amoral attitudes of a Bernie Madoff. But perhaps captains of industry who lay off workers without a second thought provide a more common example of this disturbing dynamic. “How could he do such a thing?” becomes less of a puzzle if, as this research suggests, the thought of financial reward makes one less empathetic.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us

Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

Fecal Donor Banks Are Possible and Could Save Lives

Defrosted fecal matter can be gross to talk about, but the benefits are too remarkable to tiptoe around.

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

To Make Friends, Autistic Kids Need Advice—and Space

Kids with autism need help when it comes to making friends—but they also need their independence.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014