Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Money priming, motivation, and emotion

Money priming, motivation, and emotion:
What is the effect of money priming on motivation and emotion?


  If you were to think of food, how would you see this word? S_ _ P

Did you think of soup?

Yet, if you were to think of showering, how would you see this word? S _ _ P

Did you think of soap?

This is the effect of priming

Figure 1. A statue of "The Thinker". "Which of my thoughts and beliefs have been unconsciously primed and which have not?" he thinks.

Priming is the effect in which recent experience of a stimulus facilitates or inhibits later processing of the same or similar stimulus (APA, 2022). Priming is a largely subconscious activation of knowledge, and has been studied extensively over the past 25 years (Bargh, 2006). Priming effects are greatly influential; priming the single concept of aggression in a young boy can have multiple effects across a wide array of psychological systems within him, such as behaviour, perception, motivation, evaluation and emotion (Bargh, 2006). Priming produces these varying and vast effects by offering environmental cues that activate automatic associations the person already holds (Reeve, 2018). For example, money is a globally understood environmental cue that inhibits unconscious psychological systems within a person. So, how does our primed reaction to money affect motivation and emotion through association? An example of money priming can be seen in a report by Vohs and associates (2006), in which merely being in the presence of money made participants feel self-sufficient and more motivated to persist and work harder and longer on difficult tasks without asking for help. Those primed with money may also show more prosocial behaviours and willingly ask others for help (Aghakhani, et al., 2019). The effects of money priming can be complex, and individual responses are variable. Consequently, when investigating the effects money priming has on motivation and emotion, money can be portrayed both as the greatest good and the greatest evil.

Focus questions:

  • What is priming and how does it work?
  • What is money priming?
  • What are the motivations and emotions associated with money priming?
  • Is money priming an helpful or unhelpful phenomenon?
  • Is there an emotional or motivational difference between using a credit card or cash when spending or saving money?
  • Does dirty money entice nefarious motivations and emotions? If so, why and how?

What is priming?Edit

Figure 2. This image shows a priming web built from different types of priming. The lines in this web indicate associations that an individual might have.
Figure 3. Within political campaigns, the media can be effective in priming public support towards or away from a certain topic or political candidate.

The word 'priming' was first used by Karl Lashley in 1951, while examining how and why word responses and speech production flowed so easily and effortlessly within speech. He argued that there must be a stage between the intention or will of an action and then the production of said behaviour that inhibits such unconscious associations. Coming to this conclusion, Lashley argued that the mentalistic theory of priming must be responsible. Through Lashley, the idea of priming entered psychological literature to refer to "a preparedness of mental representations to serve a response function" (Bargh, 2014). Simply put, priming is a subconscious memory and recall system.

According to Hoewe (2020), at the most basic level, priming is the presentation of a stimulus and the effects caused by that stimulus, which can include subsequent changes in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Priming effects are psychological principles that occur constantly and reflect the natural way the human mind keeps in touch with its environment. Primes are constantly driven by the natural contact of external environmental stimulation with internal mental representations of those environments. Normally, information that is gained from our environment is heavily simplified and imbued into a categorical system, as shown in Figure 2; word associations, simple as they are, are an example of unconscious and effortless priming. Natural and unconscious priming effects have been demonstrated to have practical importance in everyday life, and are particularly valuable for providing useful and effective "nudges" to living a happier and healthier life (Bargh, 2014).

Priming in media, advertising and politicsEdit

Further examples of priming can be observed in its application in media and advertising. According to Ewoldsen et al. (2009), it has been posited that in regard to media effects, priming refers to the "effects of the media on peoples[grammar?] later behaviour or judgements related to the content that was processed". A popular example of priming in advertising is the brand 'Nike'. Nike primes the feeling of achievement, exercise and motivation with their logo, name and their famous slogan,"Just do it". When an individual is keen to get into sport and exercise, they are unconsciously driven to Nike to purchase equipment as the association has already been established through exposure to advertisements (Gabriel, 2020).

Within politics, media and politicians work in tandem to prime the public, this is frequently done by "calling attention to some matters while ignoring others" (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). Mass media is able to shape and alter the agenda by determining which information the public may take into account when considering certain political changes and candidates. Political priming has been found to have long lasting effects on motivation, emotion, judgements and behaviours, with a very large effect size, becoming one of the most prominent forms of priming in the media sphere (Hoewe, 2020).

What is money priming?Edit

Case Study:

John, a 25 year old man living within lower-middle class capitalist America has grown up knowing the importance of money in maintaining him and his family's needs. He has been working at his lowly corporate job to support his growing family.

Discussing and investigating money priming is to discuss whether exposure to money-related stimuli can affect peoples[grammar?] thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviour (Vohs, 2015). "Money", is a distinct socioeconomic entity that plays an important role in almost all societies within the world. Money and money-related stimuli are big targets for priming effects (Lodder et al., 2019).

The representation and influence of moneyEdit

Money has become more than just an instrument for obtaining valued goods; its physical and non-physical transfer can trigger strong emotive reactions and affect behaviour (Jiang et al., 2014; Sanfey et al., 2003). Money primes have a distinct effect on how money may influence an individual and alter its representation. Since money is a symbol of the establishment that upholds existing socioeconomic systems, those who thrive in those systems, such as those in capitalist societies may be heavily primed by money and continue to affirm and protect the system that has granted them wealth and security and hold a tighter grasp on the value of money (Vohs, 2015).

Not only are money primes consistent in the system many work in, but also the media they consume. Social media, films such as "The Wolf of Wall Street", and social economic trends such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are examples of money-related stimuli that are constantly affecting the consumers' intentions, behaviours and attitudes (Aghakhani, et al., 2019). Money primes are most effective when an individual is viewing images of money, touching money and even seeing and holding play money (Mok & De Cremer, 2018; Zaleskiewicz et al., 2013).

Figure 4. Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs and Oleson's (2003) incorporating supporting theory can be important to understanding the influence and importance of money primes.

The importance of moneyEdit

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a general theory of human motivation which emphasised a concept of needs (Maslow, 1954). Maslow explained that these needs arrange themself in hierarchical order, with 'lower levels' of need being met prior to the advancement of 'higher levels,' as seen in Figure 4. Although the relationship between Maslow's needs and the motivations of money are not entirely investigated within his original theory, a study done by Oleson (2003) has investigated the correlations between the two:

  • Physiological: Money is used to secure basic human needs such as food, water, clothing and shelter.
  • Safety: Money is needed to buy insurance for security of body, family and property
  • Love/Belonging: Individuals are able to use money to provide for memberships to clubs and to go out to venues and meet people.
  • Esteem: Depending on the individual, purchasing certain items, such as designer clothes and bags, or a fancy new car may increase self-esteem and confidence and garner the respect of others.
  • Self-Actualisation: Money may contribute towards a sense of self-actualisation, this depends on what the individual is seeking and how.

It is key to note that not every individual is within the same level of the hierarchy, one individual may be living paycheck to paycheck and only just be able to support their physiological needs, while someone of the same age may be financially secure and able to purchase an impressive new apartment (Olseson, 2003). Using Maslow's theory in conjunction with the emphasis on money helps us understand the money-primed motivations of humans.

Money priming and motivationEdit

Continued Case Study:

John overhears from another co-worker one afternoon that there is a promotion opportunity that includes a massive pay rise. For the next couple of months, John finds himself working overtime at the office and takes on more challenging tasks, he feels more accomplished than ever. Despite this, he is now isolating himself more and more from his partner and child as well as his fellow co-workers he used to get along so well with. (John is unconsciously motivated by money primes)

Money motivates us to do things we may not even think we would ever do. The association money has with self-sufficiency, independence and working hard is undeniable, that when we are unconsciously primed and motivated by money-related stimuli our attitudes and behaviours change. In an influential study done by Vohs et al., (2006) participants were randomly appointed to one of three conditions: money prime, play monopoly money, or the control group who were not reminded of money. All participants completed a descrambling task by creating sentences. The control and play-money group were primed with neutral phrases (e.g., "cold it outside is" became "it is cold outside"). The play-money group had a stack of monopoly money in their visual periphery while completing the task. The money prime group were primed with the concept of money (e.g., "high a salary paying" became "a high-paying salary"). Next, all participants were given a difficult yet solvable task involving arranging disks. As the experimenter exited the room he reminded the participants that help was available if wanted. The results found that participants who were reminded of money (play money and money prime) worked longer on the task than control groups before requesting help, proving a motivation to become self-sufficient. As supported by Lea and Webley (2006), money enables people to achieve goals without aid from others, therefore leading to behaviours that suggest a feeling of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficient attitudes may be adopted positively or negatively (Vohs, 2015).

Undesirables and desirables of money priming and motivationEdit

As a consequence of self-sufficiency, people tend to focus more strongly on self-related needs and less on the needs of others (Mok & De Cremer, 2018). Likewise, subjects reminded of money are less inclined to interact and help others, even tending to drifting away from important friendships, relationships and family members (Gueguen & Jacob, 2013; Vohs et al., 2006). Money reminders make individuals more prone to social coldness and misunderstanding in communication (Reutner & Griefeneder, 2018). Furthermore, money primes stimulate a sense that one can survive and thrive on one's own, which may explain why many defend existing socioeconomic systems they live within (Vohs et al., 2006). Money primes seems to elicit immoral sentiments and selfish behaviour (Yang et al., 2013).

Alternatively, studies have found that being primed with money motivates helpfulness and charity (Aghakhani, et al., 2019). This can be sufficiently helpful when done correctly. In a study by Chan et al. (2021), it was found that when a kick-starter project is created with a clear focus of support for social or environmental issues, spending occurs and money primes are motivated by an external cause, as the intention of contributing to an important cause seemed more motivating than the actual payment of donating[clarification needed]. Furthermore, money primes facilitate culture, fair trade, philanthropy, caring for loved ones and can become associated with fair exchange and the positive treatment of others (Yang et al., 2013)[Provide more detail].

Dirty vs clean money field experimentEdit

In a field experiment done by Yang and associates (2013), at a farmers market, vendors who handled physically dirtier money subsequently cheated customers, while those who handled physically clean money gave fair value to customers. The associative primed ideals of money, dirt and cleanliness elicited certain moral judgements within individuals that affected their motivation to act fairly or not with customers.

Clean money was found to evoke positive benefits for facilitating fair trade, cultural progress and the capacity to tackle social and personal problems. Dirty money, however may elicit that many crimes, and shady business dealings throughout history that have marked the illicit personal pursuit of financial gain at the expense of others (Yang et al., 2013). This study makes us consider how money primes could motivate both crime and virtue.

Money priming and emotionEdit

Continued Case Study:

John finally gets the promotion! For the first time in his life he feels more in control of his future than ever. He has a new set of more distinguished work friends and feels confident in himself. He can finally afford a new car and is able to go out to a fancy restaurant at least once a week. However, handling new funds and responsibilities has made him stressed and snappy. He does not confide in his partner as much as he used to and seems incredibly focused on himself and his work. (John's emotions are effected[grammar?] by money primes)

Because of money's dominant symbolic representation in society, money cues can elicit cognitive and emotional representations of those systems (Vohs, 2015). How an individual is operating within the system (which depends on how much money they earn and how they earn it and spend it) can influence how they are feeling emotionally. In Thomas and associates' study (2011), the difference in physical money primes (either paying via card or cash) was investigated and found to deeply affect emotional pain and induce spending impulsivity. It was found that paying in cash felt more emotionally painful than paying with a credit or debit card, therefore paying in cash can reduce the tendency to buy items such as unhealthy foods. Credit card primes were found to reduce the emotional pain when spending money, as more unhealthy food was found to be purchased through credit cards at local supermarkets. Through this study we can see that certain money primes elicit more emotional pain than others, and this can lead to unhealthy spending habits and impulsivity.

Figure 5. Money priming can elicit emotional pain depending on which form of payment is used (credit card or cash).

Positive and negative emotions and money primingEdit

Having money or even being reminded of money can increase happiness and perceived control over outcomes, reduce anxiety over social exclusion and diminish physical pain. Having money as a resource improves sense of efficacy and confidence (Zhou et al., 2009). Money primes can lead to an ultimate increase in positive emotions, especially for those individuals who have more exposure and access to money primes (Diener & Seligman, 2004).

Money primes have also been found to induce decreased mental health and well being, and a reluctance to express emotional states (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). Money primes can encourage immoral behaviour and emotions and less sensitivity to the social environment around the individual (Yang et al., 2013).

Can we avoid or minimise priming?Edit

Completely avoiding priming can be near impossible given how we process information, but priming effects can be reduced when responses to a stimulus are changed across many repetitions. In a study by Dobbins and colleagues (2004), priming effects and repetition suppression effects were tested. There were two conditions, one where a judgement was made that the object given to participants was bigger than a shoebox, this was the initial and primed condition. In the next condition, participants were asked whether the object was smaller than a shoebox. They repeated this question over and over to participants, trying to gauge if the initial primed condition could be overridden or minimised by the new condition. Priming effects from the first condition were ultimately found to be lessened to a small degree, but participants remained preferable to the first condition, believing that the object was bigger than the shoebox. This study shows how impenetrable and powerful priming can be.


Priming is central to how we view the world and when using this lens to view money, the world's most important and central symbol, can we evaluate its benefits and doubts[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Examples of priming are evident in media advertising and within political campaigns as a way to create positive or negative associations within the mind. Money primes are strong motivators, and can push people to be cold and self-sufficient individuals or caring, selfless donators. Money primes may also effect[grammar?] us emotionally, and depending on how we observe and interpret them,[grammar?] money primes can either lead to decreased mental health and wellbeing or alternatively they can reduce anxiety and improve confidence. The type of money prime is also important. Depending on its physical form (cash and its cleanliness or a credit card), primed associations may alter emotional and motivational aspects. Priming is near impossible to avoid, yet studies have found that repeatedly questioning the validity of the original primed association may alter or minimise the effects of priming. More study is to be done on how to negate or alter priming to a more effective extent. Money priming is an important topic, as nearly all people today are exposed to its effects, whether by advertisements or the sight of someone handing cash to a cashier, it is extremely prevalent.

See alsoEdit


Aghakhani, H., Akhgari, M., & Main, K. (2019). When does money priming affect helping behavior? Australasian Marketing Journal (AMJ), 27(1), 32–40.

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Bargh, J. A. (2013). Our Unconscious Mind. Scientific American, 310(1), 30–37.

Chan, H. F., Moy, N., Schaffner, M., & Torgler, B. (2021). The effects of money saliency and sustainability orientation on reward based crowdfunding success. Journal of Business Research, 125, 443–455.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1–31.

Dobbins, I. G., Schnyer, D. M., Verfaellie, M., & Schacter, D. L. (2004). Cortical activity reductions during repetition priming can result from rapid response learning. Nature, 428(6980), 316–319.

Doyen, S., Klein, O., Pichon, C. L., & Cleeremans, A. (2012). Behavioral priming: it's all in the mind, but whose mind?. PloS one, 7(1), e29081.

Ewoldsen, David & Roskos, Beverly & Carpentier, Francesca. (2002). Media Priming: A Synthesis.

Gabriel. (2020). Priming In Marketing - 5 Great Examples To Increase Conversion Rate. Digital Marketing Agency - ALLDGT.

Guéguen, N., & Jacob, C. (2013). Behavioral consequences of money: When the automated teller machine reduces helping behavior. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 47, 103–104.

Hoewe, J. (2020). Toward a theory of media priming. Annals of the International Communication Association, 44(4), 312–321.

Jiang, Y., Chen, Z., & Wyer, R. S. (2014). Impact of money on emotional expression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 228–233.

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Lea, S. E. G., & Webley, P. (2006). Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(2), 161–209.

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Thomas, M., Desai, K. K., & Seenivasan, S. (2011). How credit card payments increase unhealthy food purchases: Visceral regulation of vices. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(1), 126–139.

Vohs, K. D. (2015). Money priming can change people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behaviors: An update on 10 years of experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), e86–e93.

Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science (New York, N.Y.), 314(5802), 1154–1156.

Yang, Q., Wu, X., Zhou, X., Mead, N. L., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2013). Diverging effects of clean versus dirty money on attitudes, values, and interpersonal behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 473–489.

Zaleskiewicz, T., Gasiorowska, A., Kesebir, P., Luszczynska, A., & Pyszczynski, T. (2013). Money and the fear of death: The symbolic power of money as an existential anxiety buffer. Journal of Economic Psychology, 36, 55–67.

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