Merely touching money has the power to alter our behavior. Money makes us more selfish, less helpful, and less generous towards others. One experiment, for example, had a pedestrian drop a bus pass in front of people who had just gotten money out of a cash machine or merely walked past the machine. People who had gotten money out of the cash machine were less likely to alert the woman that she had dropped her pass. While money can hamper helpfulness, it also confers psychological advances in the form of making people more persistent and more successful at solving challenging problems.

Our own research reveals that handling money can trigger all these behaviors, in different cultures, at a surprisingly early age—3 years-old. Even the very young are less likely to lend a helping hand, after touching money, or to work harder at solving challenging problems like correctly solving a labyrinth. And, all this happens despite a relative lack of experience with money or knowledge of its value. Money has the power to shift behavior in desirable and undesirable ways even before children can understand that a dime is worth more than a nickel. We were surprised to discover that an everyday occurrence around the world—simply touching cash—can trigger changes in behavior so early on in life. These findings could have implications for achievement, generosity and interpersonal harmony.

We documented the effects of money on young children’s behavior in a series of experiments. In one experiment, we instructed some children to sort money by denomination, while others sorted buttons by color. They then went to a different room where their performance on a difficult task was put to the test. They were given a maze to solve and were told they could quit at any time. Money sorters worked longer and were more successful at solving the maze than button sorters. In another experiment, 3 year-olds sorted coins and banknotes, or buttons and paper slips, before moving to a different room. There they met an experimenter who asked for their help readying materials for the next child she would test. She gave them a basket and asked the children to bring her as many red crayons as they could from a box in the far corner of the room. Money sorters were less helpful, overall, than button and paper sorters.

Both experiments were conducted in Poland, and we documented similar findings in a study with American children ages 3-6. The experimenter explicitly told the children that the classroom needed to be kept tidy by putting items away after they were used and that they needed to push in their chairs—all requests that are commonly expected of children at home or school. Children were given a box containing U.S. currency and were allowed to handle the coins and notes for as long as they wanted. We surreptitiously timed how long each child played with the money. The next task was in a new room and the transition to it allowed us to record whether, as requested, children put the money back into the box and pushed in their chair before leaving the room. Once in the new room, we gave the children two more opportunities to help. We asked the children whether they wanted to help us prepare materials for the next child or go play. The other chance to help was at the end of the study when children could choose up to three toys in exchange for participating. After they made their selections, we asked them if they wanted to give any of their toys to children at another school, which would make those children happy.

Children who played longer with money were more selfish, less helpful, and less generous. They were less helpful in keeping the room tidy and less willing to help ready materials for the next child. They also took more rewards for themselves and were less inclined to give away their toys to other children.

Handling money dampens young children’s willingness to help others. However, since people are more likely to help people they view as similar to themselves, children’s willingness to help may have been limited by the fact that the experimenter was an adult asking for help.

We upped the ante in the next experiment in three ways. One, instead of an adult experimenter needing help, it was other kids who needed help. Two, we tested whether exposure to money would cause children to take more for themselves and, at the same time, be less generous towards others. Three, we tested whether money’s power in reducing helpfulness was simply because children found it more desirable than buttons, which could have caused money sorters to be less helpful and more selfish. Hence, we had children sort buttons, money, or something highly desirable—candy. After that task, children were informed that they could take up to six Disney stickers for themselves. Children were then told they could give away some of their stickers to other children who didn’t participate, or they could keep them for themselves. Money sorters were more selfish than candy and button sorters. Money sorters took more stickers for themselves and donated half as many stickers compared to button or candy sorters.

Collectively, the experiments provide evidence of how merely touching money can change young children’s behavior in good and bad ways. We also attempted to rule out a number of alternative explanations: The results were not due to money’s value, children’s knowledge about money, age, mood, level of interest in the sorting task, or desirability of money.

Similar behavioral changes have been documented in adults. After a seemingly-irrelevant task in which people handled or thought about money, as opposed to other objects or concepts, their work performance improved. And, merely holding or thinking about money disrupts interpersonal harmony. We show that these effects are in place before children can even name different coins.

Young children show evidence of some remarkably advanced complex concepts such as justice, religion, and physics. Despite not being able to articulate it, children’s minds have formed adult-like connections for these concepts. Money, for good or bad, can be added to this list.