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The Poisonous Proceeds of Penny-Pinching

Researchers report the shame evoked by miserly behavior may have negative long-term health consequences.
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Is stinginess harmful to your health? Newly published research suggests the answer may be yes — if your tightwad tendencies arouse feelings of shame.

Writing in the Journal of Health Psychology, a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn describes an experiment in which 50 students were given an opportunity to be generous.

Specifically, each received 10 one-dollar coins as compensation for their participation. They were then given the option of donating some or all of this payment to a randomly selected classmate who was not involved in the experiment. Those who chose to do so put a portion of their earnings in an envelope and handed it to the presumably pleased recipient.

Both before and after the experiment, all the participants rated their mood — specifying their levels of such emotions as excitement, anxiety and shame — and provided a saliva sample, so their cortisol could be measured. Cortisol is a hormone that gets activated in times of emotional stress; frequent or prolonged elevation of cortisol levels has been shown to increase one’s vulnerability to disease.

“Participants who kept more money for themselves reported … more negative (emotions) and more shame,” the researchers report. “Shame predicted higher levels of post-game cortisol, controlling for pre-game cortisol.”

This suggests “stingy economic behavior can produce a feeling of shame, which in turn drives secretion of the stress hormone cortisol,” Dunn and her colleagues conclude. “Over time, such behavior may have compounding consequences for health.”

They added, “To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to identify the pathways through which a specific economic decision may ‘get under the skin’ to influence a health-related biological process.”

So, in terms of wear and tear on the body, there’s a price to be paid for being Scrooge-like. But the researchers add that this effect appears to depend upon “one’s proneness to shame” and whether a particular decision to give or withhold money “holds implications for one’s moral character.”

This leads to an unfortunate irony. Plenty of ungenerous people feel no shame at all in ignoring the less well-off (note the recent resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand), and this research suggests their moral obliviousness may actually ward off this threat to their long-term health.

Unless, of course, they’re merely repressing such uncomfortable emotions, which could have its own long-term health consequences. All things considered, it’s probably wiser to not be a miser.