Psychologists destroy money for the sake of science

When the British acid house band The KLF videoed the burning of a million pounds in 1994 on the Isle of Jura, they might not have realised it, but they were likely activating the left hemisphere tool network of anyone who watched.

In a splendid case of science imitating one of the quirkier corners of life, Cristina Becchio and her colleagues, including the British husband and wife team Chris and Uta Frith, scanned the brains of twenty people as they watched brief video clips of 100 or 500 Danish Kroner bank notes (worth ten or fifty pounds, respectively) being torn or cut in half*. For comparison, the participants also viewed the same value notes being folded or looked at, and they also viewed valueless notes with scrambled imagery on them being destroyed or folded.

Compared with the other video clips, the sight of bank notes being destroyed led to increased activation in brain regions previously associated with looking at, identifying and using tools – that is, the left fusiform gyrus and the left posterior precuneus. This activation was greater when it was higher value notes being destroyed. Participants also said they felt more aroused and less comfortable when watching the money being destroyed than when watching the other videos.

Why wasn’t the inferior parietal lobule, the final part of the so-called left hemisphere tool network, activated? Perhaps because activity here is associated with specific motor skills and hand movements involved in tool use, and the use of money isn’t dependent on any particular skilled movements.

The researchers’ interpretation of their finding is that the videos showing the cutting and tearing of money prompted participants to focus on the usual function of money as a tool for representing the value of goods and services. ‘… [T]he fact that the brain does treat money as a tool for tracking exchange on a precise scale suggests that a tool explanation of money is more than just a useful metaphor,’ they said.

An alternative explanation for the results is simply that the extra activation during the destructive clips was caused by the emotional effect of seeing money destroyed, in line with the participants’ subjective accounts of how they felt. But Becchio and her team doubt this is the true cause of their results – they found no activation in brain regions usually associated with financial loss and there were no correlations between levels of brain activity and the arousal and comfort ratings.

The KLF were unavailable for comment.

Becchio, C., Skewes, J., Lund, T., Frith, U., Frith, C., and Roepstorff, A. (2011). How the brain responds to the destruction of money. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 4 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1037/a0022835

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

*Prior agreement for this was obtained from the Danske Bank of Denmark, to whom damaged notes were returned after the study was completed.