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A study conducted in a group of children, has shown that handling money may reduce helpfulness and generosity, but increase perseverance and effort applied to difficult tasks. The study was conducted by an international team, including researchers from SWPS University in Wrocław, University of Illinois in Chicago, and the University of Minnesota.

The study group comprised 550 Polish and American children, 3 to 6 years of age. At such a young age the children were not aware about the value of money, for example they did not know how many “groszy” there are in 1 PLN (Polish Zloty) or how many cents in $1.

The children who had contact with money during the experiment, have shown a decrease in pro-social behaviors and an increase in egoistical attitudes.

Children do not understand the economic value of money, but they comprehend its emotional value.

During the study the children were given various tasks to complete. The first group had to sort coins and banknotes, while the second group was sorting buttons or candy. Next, the children were asked to help others, to share their prize or to complete a difficult task, such as completing a puzzle or finding their way through a labyrinth.

The children who had contact with money demonstrated an increase in egoistical behaviors. They were less eager to help the researchers, corralled more awards for themselves, and they were less likely to share the rewards with their peers. On the other hand, they were also more persistent in completing individual tasks. As many as 81% of the children who had contact with money, were focused on finding their way through a labyrinth for at least two minutes. Only 50% of the children from the second group displayed equal perseverance.

“Money is such a strong symbol in the world based on economic exchange that even small children are influenced by its significance. Money causes people to switch from the view of the world that values close relationships to the world that values market exchange, where the notions of ‘me’ and ‘my gain’ are in the center”, explains Assistant Professor Agata Gąsiorowska, economic psychologist from SWPS University in Wrocław, and a co-author of the study.

The results from the study focused on behavior of children are very similar to the results of a comparable study that looked at adult behavior. Talking about money, touching coins and banknotes or just looking at money makes people more persistent in completing tasks, but less inclined to be helpful or show generosity. While independent effort is an important value in the context of economic exchange and relation to money, generosity and kindness are important in social interactions and they are on the opposite spectrum of the value chain in the world based on exchange of commodities.

If small children, who do not know the value of money, react to them the same way as adults, we can assume that there are two sides not just to every coin, but to money in general - one is connected to its economic value, i.e. earning money for work, buying goods, and the other one, which is connected with its social and psychological aspect. It seems that economic savvy is not necessary to follow the non-economic aspect of money. Money changes our world even if we are not yet well versed in their use”, says Agata Gąsiorowska.

“Parents should be aware about this power of money.” Children are great observers of the world and they obviously learn money-related behaviors from their parents. “Parents’ attitude towards money undoubtedly influences the way their children will think about funds”, says Professor Tomasz Zaleśkiewiecz, economic psychologist, and co-author of the study, SWPS University in Wrocław.

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International Research Team

The study was conducted by an international research team, including: Agata Gąsiorowska, Tomasz Zaleśkiewicz, and Sandra Wygrab, SWPS University in Wrocław, Lan Nguyen Chaplin, University of Illinois, and Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota.

An article presenting the results of the study entitled “Money Cues Increase Agency and Decrease Prosociality Among Children: Early Signs of Market Mode Behaviors” was published in Psychological Science in March 2016. The study was financed by grants from the National Science Centre and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

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