Hunger for Money

“Will work for food.”

Scrawled on a piece of cardboard those words are a painful reminder of life’s fragility. They also pluck a deep chord in our psyche, because they reduce life to our most fundamental and oldest needs. The sentiment behind those poignant words can be traced all the way back to the African savannahs, to a time when our earliest ancestors did indeed do just that. In the eons before minimum wages and credit cards and 401(k) plans, the closest thing to earnings and savings was bounty from the hunt. Food was more than nourishment; it was an asset.

Given this deep and ancient connection, it’s not implausible to think that food and money might still be tightly intertwined in our psychology, even deep-wired in our neurons. And in fact, behavioral scientists are very interested in the links between scarcity, hunger, and gluttony on the one hand, and frugality, charity, and stinginess on the other. Put simply: Could comfort food translate into feelings of fi-nancial security? Might there be a link between satiety and generosity? Can we literally be hungry for money?

Psychologists at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium decided to explore this dynamic in the laboratory. Barbara Briers and her colleagues did a series of three experiments designed to tease apart the connections between nourishment and personal finances. In the first, the researchers deprived some people of food for four hours, long enough that they wouldn’t be starving but they would almost certainly have food on their minds. Another group ate as usual. Then all the participants were put in a real-life simulation where they were asked to donate money to one of several causes. The people with the growling stomachs consistently gave less money to charity, suggest-ing that when people sense scarcity in one domain, they conserve resources in another. Put another way, people with physical cravings are in no mood to be magnanimous.

In the second study, Briers actually let the participants eat as usual, but she triggered some participants’ appetites by wafting the scent of baked brownies into the lab. Then they played a computer game that, like the earlier simulation, tested their generosity. Again, partici-pants with food on their minds were less willing to part with their cash. Interestingly, in this study none of the participants were actually hungry, meaning that the desire for brownies alone was powerful enough to make them into tightwads.

That’s pretty convincing evidence. But the psychologists decided to look at it the other way around. That is, they wanted to see if a heightened desire for money affected how much people ate. They had participants fantasize about winning the lottery; some imagined winning big (25,000 euros) while the rest thought about a modest prize (25 euros). The researchers wanted the more outlandish fantasy to increase desire for money, so they had the big winners further fantasize about what this imaginary windfall would buy— sports cars, ste-reos, and so forth. The researchers basically made some of the participants greedy and not others.

Then all the participants took part in a taste test of two kinds of M&Ms, although unbeknownst to them, the scientists were actually measuring how much participants ate. And yes, the greedy people scarfed down significantly more candy. It appears that the desire to ac-cumulate money (and stuff) is a modern version of the ancient adaptation to accumulate calories. (For what it’s worth, people who were watching their weight did not break their diets, even if they were salivating for a large-screen TV. So perhaps we are not complete slaves to our evolutionary instincts.)

This final experiment is consistent with a classic study from the 1940s (Bruner & Goodman, 1947). In that study, poor kids consistently overestimated the size of coins, while rich kids did not. The new findings are also consistent with earlier research showing that poor men prefer heavier women (Nelson & Morrison, 2005). With both the poor kids and the poor men, financial insecurity was powerful enough to distort something as fundamental as perception.

The Belgian scientists (who report all three studies in the November 2006 issue of Psychological Science) speculate that the craving-generosity connection is wired into the brain. Both food and money are rewards, they give pleasure, and it’s possible that both (and per-haps other rewards as well) are processed in the same clusters of neurons devoted to savoring rewards.

Whatever the underlying neurology, the findings could help explain a phenomenon that has long perplexed U.S. public health officials: the high prevalence of life-threatening obesity among society’s most disadvantaged people. It seems counterintuitive that people with the least money should be the most overweight. But it may be, Briers suggests, that material success has become so important that when peo-ple fail in their quest for money, they get frustrated and their brains switch between two intertwined rewards. In effect, they’re reverting to a primitive state, when high-calorie food was the common currency. So people living hand to mouth do indeed work for food but, unhap-pily, just not nutritious food.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

Bruner, J.S., & Goodman, C.C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42, 33-44.
Nelson, L.D., & Morrison, E.L. (2005). The symptoms of resource scarcity: Judgments of food and finances influence preferences for potential partners. Psychological Science, 16, 167-173.

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