would you take the free money?

Earlier this week a bank ran a social experiment with a money tree (but it doesn’t grow on them, right?). It pinned thousands of dollars to a tree in the city and then filmed how people responded. In many respects it reflected what goes on internally for all of us when dealing with anything to do with money. But it also shows how assumed behaviour can be distorted when we’re faced with blatant generosity.

The PR who put on the stunt sent me a few observations which made me smile:

* People couldn’t just have it for themselves: One workman, after taking some notes, went to the nearby work site and sent his colleagues to collect money for themselves. More athletic and enterprising people cooperated by hoisting one another onto their shoulders and lifting them or forming a human pyramid and then sharing the money amongst the group

* When people are given stuff, they want to play it forward: One man handed over the money as a donation to charity. One woman, who had recently been made redundant, went to go and tell a homeless man about the tree. One tall man knocked down notes and after gathering them shared them with a couple of much shorter girls who had arrived on the scene when only the higher notes were left

* When receiving acts of generosity, we behave ourselves and become aware of our behaviour: Another person was seen retrieving some knocked down notes that had fluttered under a park bench and returning them to the person who had been knocking them down. A few took some money and then seemed overcome with guilt. One man approached one of the incognito research team and agonised over having taken two notes, apologising to this total stranger for “being distracted by the money”

I’m not sure what I’d do in that situation. I’m not good with crowds. I’d probably stand back and watch. I used to be the same as a kid at birthday parties when the pinnata was popped.

It reminds me of the post from a few weeks back where I asked what would be the one thing you’d keep (if you could only keep one thing). The question kind of renders all possessions in your life redundant. When forced to consider the relative worth of things, you realise it’s all pretty worthless. Ditto with being given money for free. It makes you question whether you want it, and whether you’d prefer, really, to share it around.

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