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Why Does Money Matter? The Psychological Meaning of Money

Why does money matter?

Why does money matter? A recent, influential paper argued that the straightforward interpretation of money is that it works like a tool, in that it enables the owner to get what he wants. But that's not quite exactly correct. Tools are specific to a job. A saw is specifically useful for cutting things in pieces. Money does not have this specific quality. It wasn't created so that people could trade it for fish or sex or beer. Instead, it is an all-purpose tool, which means it is much more like a resource than a tool per se.

Another difference is that a genuine tool enables you to do things, directly. It doesn't matter what other people think about a tool. You just use it, and it gets results. But money depends utterly on what other people think about it. Unless they agree to recognize it as having a particular kind of value that can be exchanged for other things, it is just useless paper and metal. The pragmatic usefulness of money depends completely on a set of assumptions shared by many different people.

What sort of resource is money? Money is control over the environment by means of the social system. You have control to make the system give you what you want. Money thus makes the person less dependent on the good will and social approval of others. Money enables you to use others to get what you want.

The broader perspective of this blog regards human beings as cultural animals. That is, human beings combine nature and culture in a remarkable, probably unique way. Humans are animals (nature) who get what they, as animals, need and want by virtue of the complex social system known as culture.

Thus, culture is the biological strategy of humankind. Nature measures success in survival and reproduction, and all else is geared toward furthering those ends. (Evolutionary purists insist that even survival is merely a means toward reproduction.) For most animals, survival and reproduction depend on dealing directly with the physical environment, including the other creatures they want to eat and those who want to kill and eat them. For humans, survival and reproduction depend on negotiating their way within the complicated social systems that humans create, which include culture.

Money works that system. Having money enables the individual to use the system, to get the system to dispense what the individual needs and wants. For example, whereas birds and fish and bears get their food from the natural environment around them, humans tend to get their food from the social system, which these days includes grocery stores, restaurants, and pizza delivery companies. When was the last time you got your food the way a bear or bird does, by finding a living thing in the world around you and then killing and eating it?

Yes, we get our food from the social system (the culture), but to do that requires money. Sometimes, to be sure, one can get food without money, such as by getting invited to someone's home for dinner (although the host probably spent money on the dinner), or by letting one's parents make dinner (though they probably used money). For the most part, however, to get food from the social system, you need money.

Money is thus a resource that contains a remarkable kind power to influence the social system. The social system recognizes its power and value and responds to it. Money is thus not like a physical tool, but in a sense it is an all-purpose social tool.

NEXT: Money and evolution; and why is money the root of evil?

This post was coauthored by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs.