Nothing really gets us humans nearly as exited as money. Neurons fire like crazy and MRIs can easily distinguish patterns that flare up when money is brought up. But not everyone has the same reaction to money, although it’s ubiquitously strong. For instance, a 2005 study at Stanford investigated what happens when investors choose between stocks (high risks) and bonds (low risk). The MRI scans showed that those who chose stocks over bonds had more intense activity in the nucleus accumbens, a section of the brain involved in the reward circuitry and the processing of emotions. The risk adverse who chose bonds, however, fired up the anterior insula, also part of the emotional wiring of the brain during anticipation of physical pain, which correlates with selfreported state of anxiety.
This landmark study showed that the standard economic models of human decision making (such as utility theory) which minimize the influence of emotions and idealize the decision maker as a perfectly rational being are wrong. Neither the investor who chose stocks, nor the one who chose bonds did so out of entire rational reasons. One kept his eyes on the prize anticipating the reward (pleasure) and the other sought to minimize risks (fear). In fact, money is so influential on our behavior – or rather the emotional response we have to money – that it can be likened to taking cocaine (the brain scans of people playing a money game and cocaine addicts were indistinguishable).
Another important study from 2003, looked at how what happens in the brain when we negotiate. Participants were paired and asked to play the Ultimatum Game, where one participant acted as the proponent of a financial deal, and the other as the receiver (a fix sum of money was awarded and the two had to convene how to split it). If the two couldn’t reach a deal, both participants lost money. Rationally speaking, the receiver should accept any kind of deal. Some money is better than no money at all. But even in the comfortable setting of a study group, 50% of low offers were rejected by the receiver. Seeing the offer as insulting, the receiver would rather see the proponent lose money (punishment) than gain money himself.
MRI scans revealed that when a respondent receive the offer on how to split the money, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex fires up which is linked to self-awareness. This part of the brain is heavily engaged in solving complex problems and its what helps us be really successful in navigating the world. When an unfair offer is solicited, though, the anterior insula – yet again – is coupled in. Funny thing about the anterior insula is that it has these cells called “spindle cells”, which incidentally are also found in the digestive system. So, what’s colloquially known as a ‘gut feeling’ is a complex biological link between your brain and stomach, not just an anecdote. Moreover, disturbances of this system have been implicated in a wide range of disorders, including functional and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and eating disorders.
Money makes us do crazy stuff. We’ve all heard the stories. But what’s important to take home is that money or lack of it, can change our character and personalities. One study, for instance, found wealthy people have less empathy than those less well off. One University of Berkeley research found that even fake money could make people behave with less regard for others. Researchers observed that when two students played monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunts the player with less money.
Another study center in San Francisco made by researchers at Berkeley found drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. A study by University of Utah and Harvard University found that even thinking about money can lead people to act in unethical ways, while some other study shows that people “hate losing money more than they love making it”.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.