scorecardresearch Skip to main content

What dirty money does to us

And other surprising insights from the social sciences


The price of dirty money

Be careful the next time you handle dollar bills that aren’t crisp and clean—they might actually cost you. In a series of experiments, psychologists found that dirty-looking money leads to dirty ethics. People who handled, or read about, dirty bills behaved more selfishly and were less concerned about reciprocity and fairness. It wasn’t the dirt alone that caused this debasement; handling dirty paper other than money actually made people more ethical. It was the combination of dirt and money that mattered. The researchers found this was true in the real world as well: After being presented with dirty bills, vendors at a farmer’s market were more likely to cheat customers.

Yang, Q. et al., "Diverging Effects of Clean Versus Dirty Money on Attitudes, Values, and Interpersonal Behavior," Journal of Personality and ­Social Psychology (forthcoming).

What makes women negotiate

In explaining the ongoing gender gap in salaries, some have asserted that one cause is that women are less likely to negotiate for higher pay. A new study by two economists suggests that simply mentioning that pay is negotiable goes a significant way to level the playing field. For the study, advertisements for administrative assistant positions were placed on job websites across the country. When pay wasn’t described as negotiable, there was a gender gap favoring men in the odds of applying and negotiating, but the gender gap was significantly reduced or reversed when pay was described as negotiable.

Leibbrandt, A. & List, J., "Do Women Avoid Salary Negotiations? Evidence from a Large Scale Natural Field Experiment," National Bureau of Economic Research (November 2012).

I cheat, but I’m not a cheater

Do you cheat, or, to put it another way, are you a cheater? That may seem like a ridiculous distinction, but, according to a new study, thinking of cheating as a behavior rather than an identity makes us more likely to do it. Researchers approached people on the campus of Stanford University and told them (with wording variations in brackets) that they were “interested in how common [cheating is/cheaters are] on college campuses.” Asked to think of a number between 1 and 10 and then told they’d be given $5 if their number was even, participants were much more likely to report even numbers if they had heard the “cheating” rather than the “cheater” script. Likewise, in an online experiment, people were asked to test their own psycho-kinetic powers by flipping a coin repeatedly and trying to make it land heads up, with a $1 reward for each head the person reported. People who were instructed not to “cheat” over-reported heads compared to people who were instructed not to be a “cheater.”

Bryan, C. et al., "When Cheating Would Make You a Cheater: Implicating the Self Prevents Unethical Behavior," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

To become American, protest!

What makes immigrants start to think of themselves as American? A new study suggests that, oddly, pushing back against American policies is one way that groups cement their identity as belonging to the country. A political scientist from Brown University analyzed the responses of Latinos to a survey that was in progress around the time of the 2006 immigration reform protests. She found that Latinos—particularly Spanish-speakers, Mexicans, and Dominicans for whom the immigration debate was most relevant—were more likely to identify as American after the protests.

Mohamed, H., "Can Protests Make Latinos 'American'? Identity, Immigration Politics, and the 2006 Marches," American Politics Research (forthcoming).

Disclaimer: Disclaimers might not work

The government requires many products and services to be advertised with disclaimers, but are these disclaimers helpful? The authors of a recent study argue that, despite their intuitive appeal, mandatory disclaimers can create a false sense of security, sow confusion, and even promote rebellious behavior. To test the efficacy of disclaimers, the authors conducted an experiment based in Florida, which had required dentists who advertised implant dentistry credentials to include a disclaimer stating that such credentials were not officially recognized; the credentials were not bogus, though, since they required “extensive training and experience.” The researchers interviewed ordinary Floridians to gauge their impressions of advertisements with or without the disclaimer. The disclaimer sowed doubts about the credentials and increased the number of people—especially women and those without a college degree—who chose the less-credentialed dentist.

Green, K. & Armstrong, S., "Evidence on the Effects of Mandatory Disclaimers in Advertising," Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (November 2012).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
He can be reached at