Money is essential: Ownership intuitions are linked to physical currency



May 2013, vol. 127, n°2, pp.220-229

Departments: Management & Human Resources

Keywords: Money, Essentialism, Contagion, Ownership intuitions, Property, Fungibility

Due to basic processes of psychological essentialism and contagion, one particular token of monetary currency is not always interchangeable with another piece of currency of equal economic value. When money loses its physical form it is perceived as 'not quite the same' money (i.e., to have partly lost the original essence that distinguished it from other monetary tokens), diminishing its intuitive link with its original owner. Participants were less likely to recommend stolen or lost money be returned when it had been subsequently deposited in an electronic bank account, as opposed to retaining its original physical form (Studies 1a and 1b). Conversely, an intuitive sense of ownership is enhanced through physical contact with a piece of hard currency. Participants felt the piece of currency a person had originally lost should be returned to him rather than another piece of currency of equivalent value, even when they did not believe he would be able to tell the difference and considered distinguishing it from other money illogical. This effect was reduced when the currency had been sterilized, wiping it clean of all physical traces of its previous owner (Studies 2a, 2b, and 3)