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The Meaning of Money

Explanations > Motivation > The Meaning of Money

Survival | Liberation | Time | Lubrication | Status | Keeping score | Means | Control | Evil | So what?


What does money mean? When people talk about it, what does it make them think? What does it encourage them to do?

We used money to motivate, but often we do not understand the true motivation. Often, people are motivated in complex, multi-dimensional ways.

Money as survival

Money in our society is the means by which we buy things which we use to survive, from food to houses and sometimes to weapons.

The basic principle of survival is to get a job for which people pay you money so you can buy food and everything else you need. It also means survival of your genes as you use the money to help bring up your family, paying for their food, school fees and so on.

Many people work just to get money to survive. They do not like their work but consider it necessary just to get by.

Money as liberation

As opposed to basic barter, money can be very liberating, especially if you have enough not to need to work every hour of the day just to survive. With money you can indulge in your passions and do things on a whim. You can holiday, take up hobbies or just lounge at home watching television.

Money has effectively created capitalism and the middle classes. It allows for complex and delayed trades.

A reason people seek money is hence so they can be free to do as they wish, whether it is in weekend hobbies, long holidays or even longer retirement. 

Money as time

There is a saying 'time is money', but really money is time. We exchange our time working to get money, then pay other people for things that would take us longer to produce. Money can hence be seen as 'stored time'.

When you have money, you can take time to do the thing you like doing while paying others to take time doing the things you do not want to do. A thought people consequently have about money is that 'It will buy me the time to ...'.

Money as lubrication

Money is a lubricant of society. It keeps the wheels of commerce turning and the flow of interacting lives working as a smooth machine. Like oil, money can be moved to where it is needed, unsticking problems and getting everything going again.

Individually, we can see money like this, as a way of keeping things going. This idea can even be seen in the language, as we 'grease the palms' of people we want to help us.

Money as status

Having money, being rich, is an aspiration for which many people dream. We look up to people who have money as being successful. We seek to be near them in case some will rub off on us. We try to ingratiate ourselves to them in the hope that they will give us some of their wealth.

People see money as something that makes them superior to others. They encourage others to believe this by showing off, 'splashing the cash' and indulging in what is called 'conspicuous consumption'.

Money as keeping score

How much you money you have, particularly in comparison with others, gives you a simple metric of how successful you have been in life, and many of us use this to measure ourselves.

Salary, or the money we acquire in a given period, is also used. People who have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives often keep working as they measure their ongoing 'success' by their earnings, not their savings.

Money as means

Money can also be seen simply as a means to achieve a particular end. A charity may hence see money as a means to save the lives of children.

In practice, money is a always a means unless you are miser who wants money for no other reason than to own it. This is effectively what is known as a 'means-ends inversion', where a person becomes so fixated on the means they forget the original end.

People can be seen to be treating money as a means when they talk about is with 'ends' phrases such as ' I can...'.

Money as control

Money gives you the means to control situations and other people. It lets you buy weapons and get others to do whatever you tell them. It is said that 'everyone has a price' and indeed many people have done terrible things just for the promise of money.

As a part of control, money is a great attentional device. If you put a picture of money somewhere, people will notice and look at it a lot more than if you used a picture of a flower.

People hence seek money for the sense of control they gain and the power this gives. A danger is that money effectively ends up controlling the person in another means-ends inversion.

Money as evil

A common saying, particularly by some religions, is 'Money is the root of all evil'. Money is seen as a corrupting force, something that turns good people into bad people. In particular it leads to avarice and greed as people seeking money act unfairly and unkindly towards other people.

Money itself is not evil just as a gun is not evil. But it can be used for evil ends and it can certainly result in minds and actions being changed, and not always for the better. If anything is evil it is people.

So what?

When you are using money to motivate, consider not just the simple transactional aspect (I give you money, you do as I say). Consider the complexity of multiple meanings and so customize how you use money to best effect.

See also

Extrinsic Motivation


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