Study shows morality affects perception of money

May 6, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

How you earn your money may actually matter, according to a recent study by Professor of Sociology Robb Willer that suggests that most people consider “morally tainted” money to be less valuable than money earned fairly.

Willer co-authored the study with Jennifer Stellar, a doctoral student at UC-Berkeley, who became interested in working on the study after witnessing recent examples of companies acting immorally.

“These incidents [meant] to cut corners and make more profit are unfortunate,” she said. “I wanted to know how people felt.”

The study challenges the commonly accepted idea that people are willing to compromise their morality when tempted with financial gain and instead emphasizes the role of a moral compass in making choices about money.

“Morality is an important force shaping economic decisions,” Willer said. “It explains why companies vet investors to ensure they are not immoral, why we boycott goods and companies that we believe have behaved immorally and, in turn, why companies go to such great lengths to behave morally, or to at least appear that way to the public.”

The team worked for two and a half years on the study, which was conducted in two parts. During the first part of the study, 59 college students at UC-Berkeley were split into two groups and asked to place a value on a basket of goods.

The first group was told that they could fill out up to 70 raffle tickets that would enter them to win a $50 cash prize sponsored by Target, and the second group was told they would compete to win a $50 cash prize sponsored by Wal-Mart.

The second group was then asked to read an article about the 2005 lawsuit against Wal-Mart for failing to meet labor standards. The group members were also told that the raffle prize was likely being paid for by morally tainted profits.

Participants who filled out raffle tickets that they felt were linked to immoral money filled out far fewer than those who felt that the money was neutral.

Both groups were also asked to estimate the value of a variety of goods similar to the first basket of goods that they evaluated. Participants acted under the assumption that they would purchase this second basket using the $50 from the raffle.

The researchers found that those with morally tainted money perceived the value of their money to be much less than the participants with normal money.

“For me, the most surprising finding is that moral associations are so strong that they can affect how much you think your money can buy you,” Stellar said. “Money isn’t just money.”

In the second part of the study, which was conducted online, the team recruited 140 participants ranging in age from 18 to 68, in an effort to prove that the student sample’s conclusion would “also hold in a more diverse sample of Americans,” according to Willer.

The online participants were given the same information about the Wal-Mart lawsuit and again split into two groups. The first group was asked to describe a time when they recently acted morally, while the second group was asked to describe a neutral event.

Both groups were then told that Wal-Mart had provided the funding to pay for the online tasks they completed. Those who had described a recent moral action did not hesitate to take the morally tainted money, according to Stellar.

“If we can take away the feeling of immorality, taking the money isn’t a problem,” Stellar said. “People think, ‘I know I’m a good person, this isn’t going to make me a bad person.’”

Stellar is currently developing another study to investigate how people spend money that they consider to be morally tainted. She said that she expects that they may attempt to “cleanse it” by donating or through other means.

“When we asked people whether they wanted the [tainted] money in a hypothetical situation, a lot of people didn’t want the money, but a few said, ‘I’ll take it and donate it,’” Stellar said. “We think they might be cleansing the money and fixing the negative valence of the money to make it neutral.”

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