How talking about money does more than make the world go around
Delphine Dépy Carron, spring 2022
I’d like to share a story with you, but first of all, could you give me 1,000 Euros….no? What about 100 Euros? 10 Euros? If you’re wondering why I’m asking, it’s because you will have had your own instinctive reaction to my request. And this blog is going to take a closer look at your relationship with money. We’ll explore why there are some fundamental, age-old responses to money and what we do with it.
Just as our relationship to money is different for each of us, it can change dramatically in line with personal circumstances. You may have lost your job recently or just met a new life partner who is going to boost your overall financial security. Or you may have “always been bad with money.” What I can say, though, is that your deeper, subtle relationship with money (those core beliefs about finances that you may not even articulate) is affecting your thinking and behaviours in many different ways—and could cost you more than you think.
As a neuroscientist and coach, I’ve been running sessions to better understand executives’ relationship with money and how it can affect their decision making. It may surprise you to know—even shock you—that a couple of studies have shown that how we feel about money can influence not only how we think about ourselves, but also affect our dealings with others—and from a very young age.
For example, experimental studies among undergraduate volunteers have shown that respondents who had contact with money felt themselves to be taller (with more money leading to a higher height estimation) as well as further decreasing the will to share their resources with others. There’s no doubt we live in a society that values money; clearly, it can be used to build social status and, coupled with the fact that height is seen as a signal for attractiveness, it is perhaps unsurprising that banknotes can influence positive emotional and cognitive responses within ourselves.
But while there’s something vaguely amusing about money helping us grow our self-image—and enhancing our attractiveness to the opposite sex—another study has more sobering results. Research shows that children as young as three years old are less likely to lend a helping hand after touching money, or to work harder at solving challenging problems.
Let’s just consider that a moment—at three years old, a child has barely learned to talk, let alone had any real experience with money or gained knowledge of its value—and yet these children, instinctively it would seem, behave differently. According to the study, it is a finding that has serious implications for achievement, generosity and interpersonal harmony.
Focus on finances
In line with Peter Koenig's research, in my coaching sessions with corporate executives, we take a look at each individuals’ money biography—what is their first money memory? What is their parents’ attitude to money? What role did money play in their choice of current employment?
It can be a revelatory experience for some. They may feel that money is freedom or money represents power (either to make certain choices or to influence others). They may be dismissive of money, feeling it’s the “root of all evil” to use an old expression. Or they may hold onto the idea that money (whether in the form of currency or gifts) implies they are loved or brings them greater security.
As the travellers among you will be aware, different countries and cultures can influence our relationship with money, too. Some people become uncharacteristically shy handing over money and cannot look the recipient in the eye. Other cultures love nothing more than to barter for goods or services, often seeing dramatic changes in the value in the process.
In the United States, there is a certain openness to income where money is seen as a marker of success. Whereas in France, the culture around money is more private—it is not openly discussed and almost a taboo subject around the dinner table. Even the language used to describe an income in these countries highlights differences—in the United States people “make money”; in France, they tend to “earn it” because it’s an essential part of what people do for a living (with the subtle implication being that if you don’t earn money, you are not really living).
In today’s gig economy, traditional attitudes to money are being called into question. Some new working practices mean there is no exchange of money, just the exchange of talent or services. And with a generation of millennials entering the market, the typical workhorse mentality is being discarded in favour of a more rounded work-life balance, where there’s time for leisure pursuits and a recognition of the importance of mental health and well-being.
This shift in attitude is slow, however, especially since our responses may be even more tied to evolution than we realize. Experiments by Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale University, with capuchin monkeys find they’re not so different in their behaviours around money. Given tokens which they offered in return for food, the monkeys quickly mastered the rules of basic exchange. In fact, it didn’t take long for the monkeys to reflect many of the same negative behaviours humans exhibit in the presence of money—some stole tokens from their neighbours and others spent their entire allowance in a flash. After seven years of intense study the researchers concluded that whatever mechanism in the brain was driving money biases, it is one and the same in capuchin monkeys as in us—making these strategies 35 million years old.
Here are some areas to consider when evaluating your own relationship to money:
Understand your primary beliefs: Beliefs always affect behaviours—sometimes subliminally. Even when playing the board game Monopoly, where money changes hands, research studies have shown that some players become unfriendly or unreasonable as the game progresses as a result of the money in play. Experiments where participants are given reminders of money, relative to non-money reminders, demonstrate reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others. Indeed, participants primed with money prefer to play alone, work alone and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance. In his TED talk, accountant Robert Belle says that: “Our relationship with money represents our relationship with life.” He recommends that we all do an audit of our own financial behaviour, tracking and charting our expenses so that we can learn surprising things about ourselves.
Accept that emotions are at play: On the second day of my two-day coaching course, we experiment with a series of scenarios that relate to the giving, receiving and “losing” of real money. The amounts are significant, meaning that if the money is taken by another participant, they will be out of pocket. Participants are never sure if they will end up making a loss and many emotions surface as they analyse responses to their personal beliefs around justice and equity. Chief Executive Officer of Chase Consumer Banking, Thasunda Duckett, runs through six ways to improve your relationship with money and says taking control of our personal finances can feel overwhelming. She acknowledges that we often have a fraught relationship with money—feeling anxious, insecure, even shame—but concludes: “Your self-worth is not determined by your net worth.”
Money can be a relationship gamechanger: Understanding your approach to money can affect your behaviours and consequently your relationships. Being aware of your response to giving money and the triggers to your emotions can be a gamechanger for how you deal with others in the short- and long-term. Being clear about what happens when you give or receive money can help you to be more sensitive to cultural differences and more responsive and inclusive in your dealings with others.
In a global economy, understanding your relationship to money can determine how you react in your own life, to the lives of those around you—and society as a whole. For now, let me reassure you there’s no payment needed for reading this blog—but I do hope you’ll consider visiting my website again in the future.
 How Much Money Do You Need to Feel Taller? Impact of Money on Perception of Body Height, International Journal of Environmental research and Public Health, 24 April 2021. https://www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph
 Gasiorowska A, Chaplin LN, Zaleskiewicz T, Wygrab S, Vohs KD. Money Cues Increase Agency and Decrease Prosociality Among Children: Early Signs of Market-Mode Behaviors. Psychological Science. 2016;27(3):331-344. doi:10.1177/0956797615620378. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797615620378?journalCode=pssa&#
 Monkey Business, February 2011. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/monkey-business
 What Monkeys Can Teach You About Money, Mental Floss, August 2011, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/28601/what-monkeys-can-teach-you-about-money
 Vohs, Kathleen & Mead, Nicole & Goode, Miranda. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science (New York, N.Y.). 314. 1154-6. 10.1126/science.1132491., https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6686399
@HiMage / Thomas Carron
Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for more than 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioural change. Delphine is also a trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.