Looking At Money Makes The Mouth Water, Study Finds

09/16/2011 12:28 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

For all the reasons to pursue wealth that seem to be rooted in rational self-interest -- money gives you more opportunities and greater freedom; it represents protection against cold and hunger; it allows you to create a comfortable life for your children -- a deeper one might simply be this: money makes your mouth water.

That's the conclusion of a study performed by David Gal, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Gal had undergraduate participants look at various pictures while holding cotton dental rolls in their mouths. When he collected the rolls later and weighed them to see how much saliva they'd absorbed, he found that the students who looked at pictures of money had drooled the most.

How much a person salivates while thinking about money -- or high-end consumer goods -- seems to depend on their mindset at the time. For the pictures-of-money experiment, Gal first primed the students by having them write about either a time when they felt powerful or a time when they felt powerless.

The students who'd been made to feel powerless, it turned out, produced much more saliva when shown pictures of money, suggesting that at some level they were more focused on the question of how they might gain power.

Similarly, Gal asked one group of men to imagine going to the barber, while he showed pictures of attractive women to another group of men and asked them which ones they'd like to date. He then showed both groups pictures of expensive sports cars. One group salivated more than the other when looking at the cars -- the men who'd been primed to think about dating.

According to Gal, the findings suggest that thinking about money and luxury goods activates the same neurological reward system as thinking about anything else desirable -- food, for example, or mating.

Social psychologists have long thought that many people, whether consciously or unconsciously, want to acquire money not for the financial security it brings, but because it suggests power and may increase one's sexual desirability.

Gal's experiment isn't the first to demonstrate the direct physiological power of thinking about money. A couple of years ago, researchers found that test subjects who dipped their fingers in hot water after counting stacks of cash actually reported feeling less pain than subjects who dipped their fingers after counting stacks of blank paper.

Conversely, the fear of not having enough money seems to be strongly associated with certain negative health consequences. Numerous studies have pointed up the damaging physical- and mental-health effects of the economic slowdown and the foreclosure crisis, with anxiety, depression, hypertension, diabetes and compulsive behavior all linked to the stresses of losing one's job or home.

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