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Thinking About Money? Take Time for Self-Reflection Instead

02/21/2014 09:24 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014
  • Francesca Gino Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Do you want to be a good person, someone who cares about the well-being of others in addition to your own? I bet you do. In fact, when people across the globe are asked this question, no matter what their social status or personal situation is, the answer is always a resounding YES.

Yet our ability to behave in ways that are consistent with this answer may vary, in part due to how wealthy we are. You might think that the more money a person has, the more compassion she will show for others and the more helpful she will be to them. After all, the wealthy surely have enough resources to share.

By recognizing the pervasive effects money can have, we can be more mindful of our actions and make time to think about time. -- Francesca Gino


In fact, money can have the opposite effect, changing our attitudes and behaviors in selfish ways, explained University of California, Berkeley researcher Paul Piff in his TED talk "Does Money Make You Mean?" Being wealthy makes us feel more entitled to that wealth, Piff has found in his research, and it can also make us less, rather than more, compassionate and helpful toward others.

More generally, when people are focused on money, they behave in self-interested ways. Even merely thinking about money leads people to be less helpful and fair in their dealings with others, to be less sensitive to social rejection, and to work harder toward personal goals. In fact, money can make us so focused on our selfish motives that it can even lead us to behave unethically. In my own research, I found that university students were more likely to cheat on a task after seeing 7,000 dollar bills than after seeing 24. Similarly, across a variety of studies, participants who were primed to think about money were more likely to cheat after completing a task by inflating their performance as compared to people in a control condition.

Money is ubiquitous in our daily lives and prominent in the Western culture's psyche. So these findings might explain, at least in part, the prevalence of selfish actions and unethical behavior in society--and why, though we want to be good people, we so often diverge from our moral compass.

Given that we desire to see ourselves as good people, triggers that encourage us to reflect on who we are affect our behavior. In my research, I have found that encouraging people to think about a different precious commodity, time, leads them to reflect on who they are and makes them more conscious of how they conduct themselves. Specifically, priming people to think about time (for instance by having them count calendar days), rather than money, lead to less selfish and more ethical behavior in my experiments.

In one of the studies I conducted, half of the study participants completed a series of task while sitting in a cubicle that had a mirror on the desk. Participants who had been primed to think about money cheated 39% of the time on a task when a mirror was present and 67% when it was not. Those who had been primed to think about time cheated 32% of the time in the presence of the mirror and 36% in its absence--a percentage that is statistically the same. In this study, the mirror triggered self-reflection. This made a difference for participants who had money on their minds: they behaved more honestly. But for those participants who were thinking about time, these thoughts were sufficient to trigger self-reflection, making the mirror unnecessary in ensuring they behaved consistently with their moral compass.

"Time is money," Benjamin Franklin once said, implying that the two are roughly equal. As my research suggests, that is not the case when it comes to how the two resources influence our ethical behavior. As compared to money, time triggers greater self-reflection. Self-reflection may be a simple exercise, but it is an important one: it reminds us of our YES--that we want to be good people. By recognizing the pervasive effects money can have, we can be more mindful of our actions and make time to think about time.

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