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People who focus too much on money may sacrifice their humanity

When making money is your top priority, you risk losing some of what makes you feel human.

In six related studies, Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Rachel Ruttan, M.S. ’11, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, explored how the pursuit of money affects the way people see themselves.

Their findings are published in the November issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

“Before undertaking this research, we’d observed how people tend to focus on money and wealth in the workplace, and we wondered: What is this doing to their well-being?” Lucas said. In particular, they were interested in a phenomenon called dehumanization. Perceiving oneself as fully human is a central component of well-being. Feeling dehumanized – less than fully human – can have negative consequences such as feelings of inadequacy, antisocial behavior and isolation, and lower levels of trust.

Brian Lucas

Their studies found that prioritizing monetary goals over goals unrelated to the pursuit of wealth (e.g., leisure) leads to self-dehumanization – the tendency to view oneself as object-like, cold and robotic. For example, in one study 160 MBA students were asked to prepare a negotiation strategy for a hypothetical job offer. Half the students were told to prioritize the two monetary goals on the table (stock options and salary) and the others were told to prioritize the nonmonetary goals (vacation time and location). Participants completed a measure of self-dehumanization; students who prioritized monetary goals reported feeling significantly less human than those who prioritized nonmonetary goals.

These altered perceptions have consequences not just for the self but also for workplace relationships. In another study, 260 working adults completed a job offer negotiation study similar to the one described above. After prioritizing monetary goals versus nonmonetary goals in their negotiation strategy, participants responded to questions about their preferences for close co-workers (e.g., co-workers who ask personal questions or make a lot of eye contact). Workers who prioritized the monetary goals in the negotiation reported a significantly higher preference for distant co-workers. “When people feel less human, they’re less likely to want to interact with a close co-worker,” Lucas said.

Reciprocally, participants in the studies who were led to reflect on their human nature and on how humans differ from robots were less likely to prioritize money over other goals.

“These effects happen because of the antagonistic tension between self-focused values, such as money prioritization, and other-focused values,” Lucas said. “When you prioritize self-focused values, concerns about others become less salient, and when you prioritize other-focused values, concerns about the self become less salient. You can’t be fully self-focused and other-focused at the same time.”

In other words, money prioritization is at odds with our perceptions of human nature.

One fundamental characteristic of feeling human is connections with other people. Prioritizing money, he said, activates self-focused goals. “This de-prioritizes other-focused goals. The less we feel we’re pursuing other-focused goals, the less we feel we are living, breathing members of the human race, as opposed to robots.”

The findings have implications for managers and policymakers interested in incentive systems, highlighting the need for cultures and incentive systems built on more than monetary outcomes, the researchers wrote.

“Organizations should focus on things that make people broader and whole, that help them prioritize a wide range of goals, not just the monetary ones,” Lucas said. “For example, wellness programs that bring the humanness back into being a human worker would be very effective.”

He conceded that, at times, “to get ahead, you may have to sacrifice your own humanity for a period of time. That’s a reasonable thing to do, if money and wealth is what you really value.

“But our paper helps people see the consequences of doing that. You should know what you’re giving up if you choose to focus on money.”

Sandi Mulconry is a freelance writer for the ILR School.

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