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Money and Belonging: For Better and For Worse
August 12, 2021

Money and Belonging: For Better and For Worse

Several years ago, a 12-year-old boy walked into my high school English classroom.  His father was one of my colleagues.  My students had just left for the day.  Young Finn dragged his feet as he approached my desk, carrying a clipboard with some paper.

“My class is raising money for cancer research,” he mumbled while showing me his pledge sheet.  Donors had an option: to pledge a few pennies for each lap the kids would run around the track or pledge a flat amount.  Looking at the pledge sheet, I noticed several colleagues’ names and some unfamiliar people I assumed were family friends.  “Whoever raises the most money in my class gets a prize,” said Finn. 

Each donor offered a fixed amount.  That was smart.  Finn’s father, after all, was a tireless marathon runner.  There was no telling how far this kid might run. 

I had recently read some studies on belonging and competition with respect to money and I wanted to test some of this with Finn.  “Show me that pledge sheet again,” I asked.  The first person on the list offered four dollars.  The second offered five dollars.  What followed were about a dozen other names, each offering either four or five dollars.

Without realizing it, the first donor set the bar, and everybody else followed.  Psychologists call this priming.  When we’re exposed to one stimulus (in this case, it was seeing $4 or $5 as a pledge) it affects how we respond.  Furthermore, nobody wanted to be an outlier, offering a dollar or twenty dollars instead of four or five.  I then asked Finn if he had a fresh pledge sheet.  “I think you’ll raise more money than anyone in your class,” I said, “by using psychology.”  I asked Finn not to show that original pledge sheet to anyone.  We would start a new one.

“I’ll donate $110,” I said, “But we’ll use it to boost everybody else’s donations.  Yes, it was mischievous.  And you’re probably happy I’m not your neighbor.  But this experiment was exciting.

I fabricated four names for Finn to write down.  We put my name as the fifth.  In each case, we listed pledged sums between $20 and $25.  We listed $25 beside my name too.  

With a smile and a wink I said, “Finn, before you go home today, please come back and show me your updated pledge sheet.  From now on, I think most people will pledge between $20 and $25.”  Finn left with a huge smile and bounced into my classroom about an hour later.  In an excited whisper he said, “It worked!  Look at this pledge sheet!”

Each of my English teaching colleagues pledged between $20 and $25.  It was much the same for some new, unfamiliar names (likely parents of other kids who were still hanging around the school).

By the end of the week, Finn had raised more money than any of the other kids.  In part, this was a result of priming.  But it was also part of the human desire to fit an established norm.  This tendency can be positive or negative.  In this case, Finn raised more money for cancer research than he otherwise would have.  But the effects of priming and competition can have negative effects as well.  In some cases, trying to keep up with Mr. and Mrs. Jones could even shorten lives.

Assume you move into a neighborhood where most of the people on your block earn more money than you.  Whether subconsciously or consciously, most people (much like that pressure I created on Finn’s pledge sheet) want to keep up.  But if your neighbors earn more, that could add stress.  And that stress could harm your health. 

That’s according to Michael Daly, an associate professor in behavioral science at the University of Stirling.  After studying 40,400 adults in England, his research team found that people’s income rankings, among specific groups, predicted levels of health.  In other words, you could even be fairly rich.  But if your neighbors earn more, you’ll likely feel pressure to keep up with their spending.  According to Daly and his researchers that pressure usually leads to poorer health and, ultimately, shorter lives.

Studies suggest we’re a bunch of copycats, whether we realize that or not.  That’s one of the reasons people who live next door to lottery winners often end up bankrupt. Could you use this follow-the-norm tendency, as Finn and I did, to raise more money for a worthy cause?  Sure.  But when socializing, try to spend more time with people in (or below) your socio-economic demographic.  Otherwise, that same human tendency might bite you in the butt.

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