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Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

Does Money Make us Selfish?

The Effect of Priming Money on Altruistic Behavior and Self-Efficacy
Nathaniel Furey
Northwestern University

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

Money appears to have a complex relationship with human behavior and well-being. While it is
a necessity to obtain basic biological needs such as food, water, and shelter, the pursuit of wealth
has been shown to promote higher levels of antisocial behavior. Namely, previous research has
shown that it increases self-sufficiency and motivation to achieve goals, but decreases the desire
to cooperate socially and help others. In our experiment, we attempted to find a causal
relationship between different amounts of money shown to participants and both their selfefficacy and altruistic behavior. Participants were shown one of three primes; the experimental
conditions were shown an image of hundred dollar bills or an image of pennies and asked to
estimate the value in dollars, while the control group was shown an image of jellybeans and
asked to estimate the total amount depicted. They were then given a questionnaire that measured
their life satisfaction, self-efficacy, and altruistic intentions for the upcoming year. We
hypothesized that priming larger amounts of money would lead to smaller donation amounts and
that higher levels of individual self-efficacy would lead to larger donation amounts, but our
results did not provide support for either of these conclusions. However, our hypothesis that
priming larger amounts of money would lead to participants reporting lower levels of selfefficacy was supported in that the average level of self-efficacy for each condition correlated
negatively to the amount of money primed.

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


There is a nearly endless list of proverbs and adages touting the joys of wealth and
attesting to the destructive nature of greed. Because money can be perceived with such
conflicting attitudes and use of currency has been so deeply ingrained in the social functioning of
humans for thousands of years, it is a topic of great interest to social psychologists. The ways in
which money affect self-perception and behavior have immediate and important implications, as
money is a commodity with which people directly or indirectly come into contact everyday. In
this experiment we focused on self-efficacy as a dimension of self-perception and behavior in the
form of altruistic intent. More specifically, we attempted to find a causal relationship between an
amount of money displayed on a computer screen that varied across experimental conditions and
both altruistic intentions for the upcoming year and perceived self-efficacy. We also attempted to
see if higher levels of self-efficacy would lead to a higher level of intended altruistic behavior.
In order to donate money to charity, a person must have enough so that they can still meet
their basic needs on top of what they plan to give. A reasonable extension of this idea is that
those with more expendable income will donate more in general. Previous research, however,
provides evidence to the contrary. In one experiment, participants were given two dollars in
quarters that were said to be leftover from an earlier study, primed with money or neutral stimuli
depending on condition, and told that the laboratory was taking donations at the conclusion of
the experiment. Even though both conditions had the same amount of unexpected, extra income,
the condition primed with money donated significantly less than the control (Vohs, Mead, &
Goode, 2006). This suggests that when an individual is thinking about money, they are less
likely to donate money, regardless of his or her wealth. In another experiment participants were

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

asked how they would respond to a water shortage affecting either consumers in the
experimental condition, or individuals in the control condition. The participants in the
experimental condition showed significantly lower levels of personal responsibility, trust in
others, and social cooperation (Bauer, Wilkie, Kim, & Bodenhausen, 2012). This further
supports the idea that ones wealth in and of itself does not promote altruistic behavior. It also
suggests that a materialistic mindset will lead to relatively more antisocial behavior. Based on
our belief that priming larger amounts of money would trigger a materialistic state of mind, we
predicted that being primed with larger amounts of money would lead to lower planned donation
In the context of this experiment, self-efficacy is defined as ones confidence in his or her
ability to complete tasks and accomplish goals. Past research has demonstrated a causal
relationship between being primed with money and valuing self-sufficiency. In one such
experiment, an experimental condition was primed with money while a control condition was
not, and all participants were given a difficult problem with the option of aid from a confederate.
It was found that individuals primed with money waited significantly longer before they asked
the confederate for help (Vohs, et al, 2006). This can either indicate that priming money
increases self-efficacy and participants work alone because they are more confident in their own
abilities, or that it decreases self-efficacy and participants feel the need to work alone in order to
restore confidence in their own abilities. In one experiment where participants were shown
either luxury goods or neutral stimuli, viewing luxury goods was correlated with negative affect
(Bauer, et al, 2012). Because a materialist mindset is correlated to negative affect, and negative
affect is likely to be linked to low self-confidence, it would follow that the self-sufficiency
described in Vohs, et al (2006) is the result of lower self-efficacy as opposed to higher self-

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

efficacy. A more self-efficacious person will by definition feel more in control of his or her
finances, so he or she may feel more capable of giving to charity than a less self-efficacious
person. Due to our sample consisting of college undergraduates who we assumed would not
have much disposable income, and our belief that self-sufficient participants in the study by
Vohs, et al (2006) were less likely to donate money to the laboratory because of low self-efficacy,
we predicted that higher levels of self-efficacy would lead to larger donation amounts.
As previously stated, we believe the self-sufficiency displayed in the experiments of
Vohs, et al (2006) to be the result of a money prime lowering self-efficacy as opposed to raising
it. Namely, it is likely that participants felt the need to be more self-sufficient in order to restore
the self-confidence they lost in thinking about money or wealth. Viewing luxury goods has been
linked to increases in negative affect across dimensions of depression, anxiety, and selfdissatisfaction (Bauer, et al, 2012). Higher levels of depression, anxiety, and shame would lead
to lower confidence in ones abilities, so it does not make sense for priming money to increase
self-efficacy. Indeed, a correlational study examining the relationship between self-efficacy and
depression among Iranian adolescents found a significant negative correlation between selfefficacy and depressive symptoms, and integral component of which is negative affect
(Ghofranipour, Saffari, Mahmoudi, & Montazeri, 2013). We believe viewing images of money
will cause people to think either of material items they want but do not have, or more generally
of the financial success they wish to, but have not yet, achieved. Furthermore, given that our
sample is composed of college undergraduates, it is highly unlikely that any have met all of their
professional goals at this point in their lives. Because there is evidence to show that priming
individuals with stimuli related to money leads to increased negative affect and that depressive

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

symptoms such as negative affect are negatively correlated with self-efficacy, we predicted that
priming larger amounts of money would lead to lower levels of self-efficacy.



99 Northwestern University students (N=95, MAge=20.23, SDAge=1.71; 59 females; 52% White;

24% Asian; 3% Indian; 4% Latino; 8% Multiracial; 8% Black; 1% Middle Eastern) were
recruited by our class for an experiment that consisted of a visual prime followed by a
questionnaire. 4 participants data were excluded due to either incorrect answers on questions
intended to gauge an adequate level of attention to the questionnaire or obvious insincerity in
answering the questions.


The experiment consisted of a visual prime, which served as the independent variable,
followed by a questionnaire, which measured dependent variables of altruistic behavior, life
satisfaction, and self-efficacy. Consent was obtained from participants via an opening question
that stated all responses to the upcoming survey would remain anonymous and confidential, that
it would take about 10 minutes to complete, and that questions which made the participant feel
uncomfortable could be skipped. The survey commenced if the participant elected to continue.

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, two experimental and
one control, and each condition was shown a different visual prime. The experimental
conditions were shown images of money and asked to estimate the value in dollars, and the
control group was shown an image jellybeans and asked to estimate the total number depicted.
Participants then completed the questionnaire that gauged their altruistic behavior, life
satisfaction, and self-efficacy.


The visual primes for the two experimental conditions were an image of a stack of one
hundred dollar bills and an image of several stacks of pennies. The visual prime for the control
condition was an image of a jar of jellybeans. As stated before, participants were asked to
estimate the dollar amount or number of jellybeans depending on the condition to which they
were assigned.
The questionnaire consisted of 31 items intended to gauge altruistic behavior, life
satisfaction, self-efficacy, demographic information, and attention to the questions. The first
section asked participants about their altruistic behavior, namely a question the amount they
would donate in 2014, a series of three questions regarding their participation in philanthropic
activities, two questions about the charitable causes and scopes of charitable organizations they
found to be most important, and a question asking whether or not they donated money to aid
typhoon victims in the Philippines and why. Following this line of questioning were the five
questions that compose the Satisfaction with Life scale (Diener, et al, 1985). A series of ten
questions intended to gauge participants self-efficacy came next. Finally, demographic

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

information in the form of age, gender, region of birth, environment of upbringing, ethnicity, and
class year were obtained. The questionnaire concluded with a question asking the participant
what image he or she saw at the beginning of the survey. The fourth item in the series of
questions regarding participation in philanthropic activities and the tenth item in the series of
questions regarding self-efficacy asked the participant to choose a specific score value in order to
ensure he or she was paying attention to each individual questions of the survey.
For the scales intended to measure life satisfaction and self-efficacy, reliability scores of .
80 and .78 were calculated, respectively. Thus, these scales were averaged into indexes. For the
scale intended to measure altruistic behavior, a reliability score of only .51 was calculated. As a
result, each item in that scale needed to be treated as a separate variable.


The five questions composing Dieners Satisfaction with Life Scale (1985) were scored
on a seven point Likert scale and the scores were averaged into an index. Values ranged from
2.8-7.0, with higher values reflecting higher life satisfaction (N = 95; M = 5.16, SD = .97). The
self-efficacy scale consisted of ten items scored on a four point Likert scale, of which scores
were also averaged into an index. Values ranged from 2.3-4.0 with higher values representing
higher self-efficacy (N = 95; M = 3.16, SD =.34). Because we could not create an index from the
questions regarding altruistic behavior, we used the amount participants planned on donating in
2014 as a measure of altruism. This question contained eight items, with the first being zero
dollars, the eighth being over $300, and the intermediate six contained varying ranges of money
between one and $299 (N = 95; M = 4.15, SD = 2.052).

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

The amount of money primed did not appear to have an effect on the amount of money
participants planned on donating in the upcoming year [F(2,92)=.76, p = .47], disconfirming our
hypothesis that priming larger amounts of money would lead to lower donation amounts for
2014. No significant correlation was found between self-efficacy and the amount to be donated
in 2014 [r(95) = -.046, p < .05], disconfirming our hypothesis that self-efficacy would lead to
larger donation amounts in 2014. Participants primed with hundred dollar bills showed
significantly less self-efficacy than the control group [F(2,92) = 5.14, p = .008]. This confirmed
our hypothesis that priming larger amounts of money would lead to lower levels of self-efficacy.
It is also noteworthy that life satisfaction was positively correlated to both self-efficacy [r(95) = .
242, p < .05] and the amount to be donated in 2014 [r(95) = .355, p < .01].

Figure 1: Effect of Money Prime Amount on Donation Intentions

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


Figure 2: Effect of Money Prime on Self-Efficacy


Our experiment did not find evidence to support our hypothesis that larger money primes
should lead to lower donation amounts. It is possible that priming money does not have a
significant effect on altruistic behavior, but the results of similar experiments conducted by Vohs,
et al (2006) and Bauer, et al (2012), demonstrate a markedly low propensity to donate to charity
when money is primed and higher levels of selfishness when consumerism is primed. This
would suggest that priming with money should have some kind of effect on altruistic behavior.
The fact that we were unable to create an index out of our scale intended to measure altruistic
behavior throws the construct validity of these measurements into question. Furthermore, the
amount an individual plans to donate as a dependent variable is unusually susceptible to
participant error. For example, if a participant gives $300 to charity per year on average, and he
or she stated an intention to donate $200 the following year after being primed with hundred

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


dollar bills, it could indicate an effect of the prime that the experiment cannot detect. Although it
would make the survey more invasive, a question asking participants to enter the amount they
donated to charity over the prior year or over a range of previous years could be added. If taken
directly from tax records, this value would not be susceptible to individual bias or influence from
the money prime. The difference between the donation value or average and the amount a
participant planned on donating in 2014 as a measure of altruism would act as a normalization of
the donation amount values we used and also minimize participant error.
We did not find evidence to support our hypothesis that participants displaying higher
levels of self-efficacy would donate more to charity on average than those with lower levels of
self-efficacy. We predicted that if an individual felt more confident in his abilities to succeed, he
or she would feel more capable to give to charity, and would give more as a result. However, as
the research of Vohs, et al (2006) has shown, ability to give to charity is not the dominant effect
after money is primed, so our results are not entirely surprising. It is worth noting that
significant positive correlations were found between life satisfaction and self-efficacy, as well as
life satisfaction and the amount to be donated. The interconnectedness between these variables
suggests that the relationship between all three merits further investigation. It is likely that selfefficacy has an indirect effect on altruistic behavior, given its positive correlation to life
satisfaction and life satisfactions positive correlation to altruistic behavior. More comprehensive
research on the effect of life satisfaction on altruistic behavior is also warranted, as our results
suggest it is a more significant contributor to altruistic behavior than self-efficacy. A study
consisting of multiple experiments, one or more of which that explore a causal relationship
between life satisfaction and altruistic behavior, and one or more of which that explore the

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


possibility of self-efficacy as a mediating variable, could shed more light on the correlational
data we found.
There was support for our hypothesis that priming larger amounts of money would lead
to lower levels of self-efficacy. This was in line with our prediction based on the studies of
Bauer, et al (2012), which found support for a causal relationship between priming luxury goods
and negative affect, and Ghofranipour, et al (2012), which found a negative correlation between
depressive symptoms and self-efficacy. This relationship could exist for a number of reasons, all
of which are worth exploring. Participants primed with money may be reminded of material
goods they want, but cannot afford or they may be reminded of their professional goals that they
have yet to achieve. More specifically, given that our sample consisted of undergraduate college
students who likely cannot pay tuition on their own, priming money may also remind them of
large, impending amounts of student loan debt or the fact that they are incapable of paying for
their own educations; two lines of thinking that could lead to feeling a lack of control over ones
Because our sample consists only of college undergraduates at an expensive private
university, our results are not very generalizable, but this could be remedied simply by modifying
the sample to include a larger and more varied population. A more general study in the same
format could show whether or not these results are specific to college students. It could also be
modified to test the hypothesis that priming larger amounts of money leads to lower self-efficacy
by reminding participants of what they havent achieved; a scale measuring satisfaction in
achieving professional and financial goals could be included, and when participants are with an
image of a large amount of money, it can be determined if those who score highly show similarly
low levels of self-efficacy to those who do not. Even though our study is not highly

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


generalizable, the results we obtained from the sample we used suggest unique questions for
further research relevant to college students that would not be obtained from a more
generalizable study. An experiment separating conditions based on student loan debt could be
used to measure self-efficacy as a function of said debt. Also, the effect of tuition cost and a
schools reputation on both self-efficacy and life satisfaction would be worth exploring.
Separating conditions based on high or low tuition and high or low notoriety, and measuring the
resultant life satisfaction and self-efficacy would accomplish this. Finally, an experiment that
separates participants into conditions of full-time students, part-time students and part-time
workers, full-time students and part-time workers, and full-time workers and full-time students
could be used to measure the relationship between employment and self-efficacy and life
satisfaction. Data from these hypothetical experiments would have valuable applications with
regard to the mental and emotional health of college-aged adults.
The two main limitations of this experiment are most likely the construct validity of the
amount to be donated in 2014 as a measure of altruistic behavior and the relatively small sample
size in conjunction with the haphazard sampling method used to recruit participants. As stated
before, the fact that we could not form an index out of the scale intended to measure altruism
indicates that some, if not all, items in the scale are not ideal representations for the dependent
variable of altruism. Possible solutions to this include running pilot studies until a scale with
high enough reliability to be averaged into an index is determined, or to ask participants to input
the amounts he or she donated in the previous years, average them, and take the difference
between this value and the amount to be donated so as to normalize intent to donate as a variable.
The sample size and method may also have had a confounding effect on our results due to how
susceptible our dependent variable measuring altruistic behavior was to participant error. For

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


example, there was no way of controlling for variation in economic background among
participants, a factor that can vary significantly among Northwestern students. While we cannot
say for sure that this would have an effect on altruistic behavior, it cannot be discounted as a
variable given its close relation to money as a general concept.
While the internal validity with regard to our two disconfirmed hypotheses is
questionable, it is much higher with regard to our confirmed hypothesis. This is because possible
confounds that may have affected results relevant to our disconfirmed hypotheses, lack of
reliability in our altruism measure and lack of economic demographic information, should not
significantly affect how participants rate self-efficacy, as confidence in ones ability to succeed is
not inherently connected to socioeconomic background. Furthermore, as Northwestern
University is very selective with regard to admissions, students are more likely to have a
similarly high motivation to succeed than they are to come from the same economic strata.
The results of our experiment disconfirmed two of our hypotheses and confirmed one.
We did not find evidence to support our predictions that priming larger amounts of money would
lead to lower levels of altruistic behavior or that higher levels of self-efficacy would lead to
higher levels of altruistic behavior. It is possible that this is because there is no relationship to be
found, but it is also likely that a lack of construct validity for our measure of altruism and our
sampling method acted to confound our results. Our hypothesis that priming larger amounts of
money would lead to lower feelings of self-efficacy was confirmed. This could be due to
participants being reminded of what they do not have or have not achieved, or it could be an
effect specific to the financial struggles of college undergraduates, of which our sample
consisted. After determining a more reliable scale to altruistic behavior and changing the
sampling method so that socioeconomic background is controlled, the study could be generalized

Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy

by selecting participants from a larger population. It can also be used as a basis to further
explore relationships between self-efficacy, life satisfaction, and finances among college


Effect of Money Prime on Altruism and Self-Efficacy


Bauer, M. A., Wilkie, J. E., Kim, J. K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2012). Cuing Consumerism:
Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being. Psychological
Science, 23(5), 517-523.
Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale.
Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71-75.
Ghofranipour, F., Saffari, M., Mahmoudi, M., & Montazeri, A. (2013). Demographical and
Psychological Determinants of Depression, Among a Sample of Iranian Male
Adolescents. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 4(10), 1217-1223.
Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money.
Science, 314, 1154-1156.