Who needs aspirin when cold, hard cash could ease your aches and pains?
- Handling money reduces the amount of pain people feel.
- In separate experiments, negative experiences, both physical and emotional, were blunted by cash.
- If real-world poverty follows this principle, those with less money may feel pain more acutely.
Money can't buy you love, happiness or even respect. Cash, however, might provide some relief from pain.
In a series of experiments, people who counted money felt less pain when their hands were dipped into scalding water. The soothing power of cash also helped them shrug off the emotional pain of social exclusion.
The findings might offer an easy way to ease life's stings and hurts, from painful medical treatments to social ostracism: Simply flip through a bulging wallet before enduring a painful experience.
"When people are reminded of money in a subtle manner by counting out hard currency, they experience painful situations as being not very painful," said lead author Kathleen Vohs, a consumer psychologist at the University of Minnesota's Carleton School of Management in the Twin Cities.
"You could think about being able charge yourself up before you encounter pain," she said. "When I used to run marathons, I would've maybe wanted to be reminded of money first."
Although scientists have been studying pain for years, they still don't entirely understand why or how the perception of discomfort can vary so much. On a scale from one to 10, for example, one person's four might be another's eight. Even a single experience can feel more or less painful to the same person under different circumstances.
In her own research, Vohs has found that thinking about money gives people a sense of self-sufficiency, making them less likely to ask for or offer help. Other studies have linked a strong sense of self-worth with a greater ability to withstand pain. So, Vohs began to wonder whether money might shift the balance on how much pain people feel.
Among other experiments, she and colleagues challenged college students to a supposed finger-dexterity task in which they counted out either 80 $100 bills or 80 slips of paper. Afterward, the cash-counters reported less pain than the paper-counters when their fingers were dipped briefly into 122-degree Fahrenheit water.
In another experiment, cash-counters felt less distressed during a computer game in which two other players threw a virtual ball mostly to each other. The game is used often in studies like these, and data clearly show that the brain's physical and emotional pain centers light up when the other players reject them.
As bolstering as it can be to handle money, the study found that being reminded of money you don't have makes pain worse. Reflecting on your shrunken 401K, in other words, could make it more difficult to cope with stubbing a toe or failing to connect with others at a party.
In an attempt to understand the source of money's power over pain, the researchers asked study participants to rate their feelings of self-esteem, attractiveness and mood, among other measures. The only reliable link they found was that having money made people feel strong, possibly providing a coping mechanism for whatever negative experiences they encountered next. Likewise, thinking about money they had spent made them feel weak, deflating their ability to cope.
"These findings are groundbreaking," said Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "If real-world poverty follows the principles of these laboratory demonstrations, then confronting social rejection or physical pain should be experienced as more painful for poor people than for wealthier people."
But you don't have to be rich to use money to your benefit, Vohs said. Merely touching cash or even staring at a money-filled screensaver could blunt the impact of hard or painful events.
"I always got a kick out of counting money," she said. "Now I know why."