What does a $20 bill represent to a four-year-old child? Magic, presumably. Mommy or daddy takes this flimsy piece of green paper out of their wallet, and suddenly they have a new toy!
While their evident delight may warm the heart, it disguises the inadvertent lessons they are apparently learning from such interactions. While they don't yet understand what money is all about, its importance registers loud and clear in their minds—and it sends an implicit message you might not appreciate.
As we've reported, several studies have found that the act of handling money makes adults less willing to help those in need. Cash apparently reminds people of the market economy, which puts them in a transaction-oriented (as opposed to a compassion-oriented) state of mind.
If you want to teach kids generosity of spirit, you might want to keep those coins in your purse.
New research from Poland finds this same dynamic can be found in children as young as three or four. They may not fully comprehend currency, but let them play with it, and they're subsequently less generous.
Magic, all right, but of a dark variety.
"Young children tacitly understand market mode, and also understand that money is a cue to shift into it," writes a research team led by Agata Gasiorowska of SWPS University of Social Science and Humanities in Wroclaw. Their study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
The researchers conducted five experiments—four in Poland, plus a pilot study in the United States—featuring a total of 476 children. One of them featured 64 Polish children, ages four to six. Participants began by sorting 30 objects: either coins (by denomination), or similarly sized buttons (by color).
"Next, the children moved to another room, where they met a new experimenter who asked for help readying a task for another child," the researchers write."She asked the children to bring her as many red crayons as they could from a box in the far corner of the room." She then handed them baskets in which they could place the crayons.
"The children who had sorted money brought the experimenter fewer crayons than did the children who sorted buttons," the researchers report. Interestingly, this held true even for children who could not identify which coins were more valuable (that is, which of them "would buy the most candy").
This pattern was found repeatedly, with children who handled money showing "reduced communal behavior." In another experiment, children who spent more time sorting money, "and hence were exposed to it longer, took more stickers for themselves, and donated fewer stickers to other children." In contrast, the amount of time they spent sorting buttons or candy did not produce this effect.
On a more positive note, two experiments found handling money increased children's industriousness, "including working until the maximum time (on a difficult puzzle), and producing accurate output," the researchers report. So hands-on exposure to currency apparently prompts even small children to work harder and smarter—even before they consciously understand the relationship between effort and monetary reward.
That's certainly a plus, but it doesn't shake the aforementioned shadow. "Why do market-mode cues hamper communal behaviors?" Gasiorowska and her colleagues ask.
Their tentative answer is that "the calculative cognitive operations elicited by market mode are difficult to relinquish once adopted." Once you're in a transactional frame of mind, it's hard to flip back to a simpler, let-me-help-you attitude.
So if your goal is to encourage your kids to work hard, by all means let them play with money. But if you want to teach them generosity of spirit, you might want to keep those coins in your purse.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.