Replacing Shame With Money

Threats to self-worth often lead to inaction. You fear being rejected, so you don’t ask Kelly to the prom. But in other cases the need to replenish lost self-esteem can incite positive behavior. A new study showing that shame increases the desire for money hints at one way this can play out.

Researchers initially asked subjects to recall an experience that was shameful, neutral, or anxiety-producing. Subjects then played a real money game in which they could choose one of three options: Receive $50 (New Taiwanese Dollars – about $1.50) and have the other player get $10, receive $56 and have the other player get $30, or receive $49 and have the other player also get $49. The first option maximized the difference between the two players, the second option maximized the subject’s money, and the third option maximized the combined money. In the end, subjects who recalled shameful experiences were more likely than those who recalled anxiety-producing or neutral experiences to act in a self-interested manner.

Although the subjects in the study could only lift self-worth by being miserly, in a different situation a person might respond to shame by doing something positive (e.g. working extra hours.) The authors conclude:

The current research provides the first reported evidence to show that people experiencing shame tend to engage in self-enhancement to amend the threatened social self by maximizing their own and relative economic resources.

Unless you’re a bundler of shady mortgage-backed securities, your methods of  maximizing economic resources will often lead to outcomes that are personally and socially beneficial.

The key problem is that it’s hard to know how somebody will respond to changes in self-worth. They could work longer hours or do better on a test, or they could become anti-social and risk-averse. Ideally, one day we’ll have a concrete and widely applicable idea of what it is about people and types of changes in self-worth that induces a positive or negative response. We can then engineer situations, whether it be a 4th grade math test or a visit to the doctor, where a loss in self-worth leads to less unproductive behavior.
Wang,C., Chen, Y., Chiou, W., & Kung, C. (2012). Shame for money: Shame enhances the incentive value of economic resources Judgment and Decision Making, 7 (1), 77-85

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