Does money make us selfish?
Some people are just not that into money. “It’s not important to me; I don't really care about it,” they might say.
Now if you’re reading this, odds are you probably do care. Some put it right up there with oxygen! But not everyone feels that way. Perhaps it’s due to downplaying its importance when there’s not a lot to go around. Or maybe they’ve seen how it can foul up relationships.
Yet because many of the things that drive our wellbeing require money – including said relationships – getting ahead financially is fundamental.
But does focusing on money make us care only about ourselves?
Psychologists took a look. At first glance, it does appear that focusing on money makes us more selfish!
For example, a series of studies showed that when people were given specific reminders about money, they became less helpful towards others. They preferred to work alone. Play alone. Even keep more of a physical distance between themselves and someone they met.
It was straight-up Scrooge – before he meets his three Christmas ghosts to set him straight. The Grinch would relate!
Or was it?
Turns out that while thoughts of money did reduce helpfulness towards others, it also led to something else. People reminded of money also stopped asking for help as much, or waited longer before they did so.
So researchers pointed out that one of the consequences of money is not selfishness, but something a little different: an attitude of self-sufficiency.
People primed with money thoughts take on a can-do attitude of doing it themselves, of making their own way. And this translates into assuming that others should do the same and won’t need their help. (Interestingly, economic students have been shown to act more in their self-interest when playing board games – and assume everyone else will too.)
Thoughts of money drive independence and self-sufficiency. And people behave accordingly, that’s all.
How do we feel about that?
Being self-sufficient is not a bad thing – many people aim for their children, for example, to learn how to stand on their own two feet. I’m certainly hoping my boys will not follow the Italian trend of still living at home with mum when they’re 40!
And of course being able to support ourselves is essential if we ever hope to support others and start a family. So focusing on your money situation is not necessarily a selfish thing to do.
Going back to oxygen, this is similar to what we’re told on planes: put on your own oxygen mask first before you help your kids – you can better help those around you when you’re in good shape.
But all this can still trip us up
Obviously, not everyone in society is able to be self-sufficient financially. Think of our most vulnerable. This cannot be “everyone fend for themselves” and “beggar thy neighbour”. Most of us don’t want to live in a world like that.
Like many things in life, we need to set a high standard for ourselves while staying empathetic towards others in far different circumstances – especially the most vulnerable. We need to set our sights high in looking after ourselves, knowing that someday we in turn might need looking after. It’s not always easy to do.
Because money enhances individualism, it can make us forget about the community and common good. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Having money allows us to help others, while keeping an eye on our long-term wellbeing.
In the meantime, people will continue to think all kinds of things about money – even that it’s the root of all evil. (Interestingly, the Bible warns about “love of money”, not money itself.)
It doesn’t make us selfish; it makes us self-sufficient.