Research and Statistics

Study: Touch money and you feel less pain


Sticking your hands in scalding water is less painful if first you’ve handled a stack of bills, researchers find.

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Who cares if money can’t buy you love? It can still be your best friend forever.

That’s one of the surprising findings in a new Chinese-American academic research paper, “The Symbolic Power of Money,” published in the journal Psychological Science.

Like any best friend forever, money demonstrated to researchers its ability to soothe us, reduce our sense of social exclusion and even lessen life’s painful moments.

As researcher Xinyue Zhou of the psychology department at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, puts it, money acts as a substitute for another of life’s pain buffers: love.

“I was surprised,” says Katherine Vohs, co-author and marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “The findings were surprising because no one had connected the symbolic meaning of money to pain. The money wasn’t buying the subjects more friends or a soothing cream; it was only psychologically helpful.”

Like any best friend forever worthy of the BFF acronym.

In the Chinese studies, students were told they would be participating in a test of finger dexterity. One group was given a stack of Chinese currency to count, while another was given blank pieces of paper.

Once the counting was complete, the test subjects were asked to dip their fingers into bowls of water heated to 122 degrees — roughly the temperature of a very hot bath.

Result? Those who had been counting money reported less pain than those who had been riffling through blanks.

Subjects also were surveyed about their feelings during the session. Those who handled actual money reported feeling stronger even 10 minutes after they put down the cash.

Combined with previous experiments, the findings confirmed what researchers have long suspected, that money acts as a general panacea in the brain, giving us social self-confidence when it is lacking and relieving physical pain without having to spend a dime on aspirin.

Money can’t buy you love, but apparently, it can hold your hand.

It accomplishes this through a subconscious process called priming, in which our mental or emotional context leading up to an event can affect our perception of it. In this case, the positive association with having and holding money “reduced distress over social exclusion and diminished the physical pain of immersion in hot water.”

“It may help explain why people are willing to push so long and hard to achieve monetary gains,” Vohs suggests.

Could the results be somehow skewed by cultural or economic differences between China and the United States?

“There is no reason to think that the effects have anything to do with China,” Vohs says. “People all over the world use money and experience pain; it’s a very basic effect that we are studying here. It has nothing to do with China.”

What inquiring readers really want to know is, can I get the same effect by shuffling my wallet-full of Visa, MasterCard, AmEx and Discover cards?

“No, credit cards do not have the same effect,” Vohs says. “They are not fungible, they are scary for most, and they in fact represent debt in many ways.”

In other words, no warm fuzzies from plastic.

The findings could have an interesting trickle-down effect in the business world, where recent trends have been to issue nonmonetary rewards and bonuses instead of what was thought of as “cold, hard cash.”

If this report is any indication, nothing relieves the pain like a few Benjamins.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I would suggest,” Vohs says of cash incentives. “But only if it was handed to them — not deposited into their accounts, for example.”

See related: Implantable RFID chips: convenient, but creepy, The world’s 10 weirdest currencies, What will credit cards look like in 25, 50 or 100 years?

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