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Research Shows Money Can Lead to Greed (Duh)

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I recently came across this shocking headline: “Cutting Calories Leads to Weight Loss.” A publicity campaign launched in late February had propelled this revolutionary news story to the forefront of the major newspapers, websites, and network news programs. Well, Duh

Do we really need a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine to tell us we’ll lose weight if we eat less?  Have we really become that stupid? Apparently, yes. And fat, too.

So, I was not at all shocked when last week, another sensationalistic headline came across my desk that said: “Money Can Make You Greedy.” “Stop the presses!” I was thinking, playing the cigar-chomping big-media news editor. “We’ve got breaking news! Quick, Madge! Drop everything and get Anderson Cooper on the line, pronto!!”

Well, the headline didn’t say it exactly like that. An article recently published in New Scientist magazine, called “Why Money Messes With Your Mind,” looks at the question of how money affects our behavior. 

I am not ashamed to admit I am ambitious. But for me, having money has always been about its practical use more than anything else. Let’s face it; money sure does come in handy. It pays for our homes, puts food on the table, and clothes on our backs.

It also pays the staff of all those non-profit organizations we love so much and for important mission and service work. It will help with that expansion of the Sunday school classroom your church so desperately needs, too. Money can do a lot of good, and there’s an incredible need for it.

But if you flip the coin, there is another side – a dingy, seedy side. It’s no secret that money can lead to plenty of selfish, unethical, and downright sleazy behavior. Look no further than the headlines dominating the media over the past several months: extravagant bonuses, Ponzi schemes, and Wall Street greed. A vast ethical vacuum lies in the wake of the financial markets that have crumbled before us.

Most hard-working, honest folk have had enough of this and stand ready with pitchforks and torches in hand waiting for nightfall, upon whence they shall descend upon the next unsuspecting AIG executive that emerges from his Lower Manhattan lair. The cry rises up from the angry mob: “Dang-it-all, we’re gonna learn him a lesson he never got in his fancy MBA school!”

Perhaps money is not the problem, per se. Currency is simply an objective tool to help us make more efficient and functional transactions in our society, right? So why, then, does money have such a nasty effect on peoples’ thinking, driving them to do such stupid things?

The New Scientist article asks this same question, but from a neuropsychological angle. The article reviews a slew of research that looks at the effect of money on your brain. It turns out money really does mess with our thinking to the point that it may indeed cause us to do something totally wacky. (Well, you, maybe. Not me. Count me out of this.)

Here are some of the findings:

* Simply thinking about words associated with money can make us more self-reliant and less inclined to help others.

* The very act of handling cash can diminish physical pain and social rejection.

* Money affects some brains the same way drugs affect addicts. 

* Subjects who heard words associated with commerce were slower to ask for help. 

Hmm. Why does this all sound so familiar? Oh yes, I remember: I think I once read about something like this in an ancient manuscript called the Bible. Jesus knew all about this problem 2,000 years ago when he gave that famous talk about the camel going through the eye of a needle. It is harder for a rich man to get into heaven, he said. (Followed immediately, by the way, with “But with God, all things are possible!”)

St. Paul wrote one of the most misquoted scripture verses of all time in I Timothy 6:10, which says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with all kinds of grief.” 

Well said, St. Paul. All throughout the New Testament are references to the dangers of the love of money, not money itself. The Apostles might as well have written similar verses about the love of food, sex, or the insatiable desire to see a new comment posted on your blog every five minutes.

Our brains have this needy little hot spot baked right in there that is constantly screaming at us from the sidelines, like a screeching monkey. “No, don’t stop! We need more! Hey loser, over here! More of that! I’m not filled yet! You are such a stupid loser! We need more! More! More!”

I think the screeching monkey is the root of all evil – not the money.

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About Bradley J. Moore