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Gordon, R.M. (2009), Money, Masochism, Narcissism and Indifference, Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly, September Issue, 69, 8, 10 and 14. 

Money, Masochism, Narcissism and Indifference

Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D., ABPP

  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 based on his research with psychologist Amos Tversky (1979) that showed that people make money decisions more on psychology than economics. They refuted the thinking of the cognitive psychologists who consider people as logical information processors. Rather they found that when future consequences were uncertain, people shifted to relying more on their biases than objective data.  That is when people were most likely to view their beliefs as reality - what Kahneman called “the illusion of validity.”  For this, Kahneman won his Nobel Prize in economics (rather than psychology…which is another story of bias). 


   Before Kahneman and Tversky’s research, Fenichel (1938) wrote that the will to become wealthy is natural, but it is often compromised by unconscious irrational conflicts. He reviewed the cultural, familial, personality and traumatic contributions to feelings about money. Fenichel believed that in the unconscious, money can represent everything that one can take or give such as: food, feces, penis, potency, love, protection, care, pride, indifference, offering, renunciation, weapon, sexual aggression, etc. The conscious conventional mind wishes to deny these embarrassing associations, but careful listening to how people deal with money often reveals the validity of these insights. We see this when people marry for money, seduce with money, horde money, use money to punish or control others, or reject money as if that made them more virtuous. Recognizing the unconscious associations to money helps us to understand how people can be so self-defeating about something so important. 


   Spinella and Lester, (2005) in their research on money and personality found that people who scored higher in neuroticism scored higher in financial impulsivity and lower in motivational drive, organization, and planning. This research illustrates that aspect of neuroticism in wanting gratification without the reality testing, planning and hard work.  Weber, Rangel, Wibral and Falk (2009) using the fMRI, found that areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (associated with the processing of anticipatory events) exhibited the money illusion suggested by Kahneman. They found that subjects did not make money decisions based on what money can buy but based on biased reasoning in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  (Next time you can say to someone after his or her foolish purchases, “Where was your ventromedial prefrontal cortex?”) 


   We know that manic individuals will spend as an expression of their grandiose self and religious ascetics will take a vow of poverty as an expression of their self-sacrifice and spirituality. Money can be an expression of one’s personality, represent parts of the self or become an over compensation for more threatening intimate resources such as love (think of the film “Citizen Kane”). 


   In my dissertation research (Gordon, 1975) I found that students’ view of money had a lot to do with their childhood. Students who grew up in love-poor families valued money much more than those who received a lot of love as children. This was true whether their families were poor or were well off. Students from love-poor families may have been damaged in their capacity to exchange love, but not so in their capacity to exchange money. They may have learned to value money as a substitute for love, as a means of security, or as an indication of their personal worth that they were not able to gain from intimacy. Children who are well loved and taught how to manage money, later develop the capacity to enjoy both money and love. 


   I also found that there were those intellectuals who were indifferent or less focused on money issues. These Platonists valued the life of the mind over wealth. For example, Einstein was able to do the math for quantum physics, but lost much of his Noble Prize money in bad investments. Nickerson, Schwarz, and Diener, (2007) found that individuals with strong financial aspirations are socially inclined, confident, ambitious, politically conservative, traditional, conventional, and relatively less able academically. 


   Many people become psychologists out of their love of ideas or their wish to help others. Money is often not their most important consideration despite the many years of education, training and economic pressures. Some therapists may take noble values too far and be considered what the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM Task Force, 2006) calls, “moral masochists.” Such individuals often feel guilty receiving and seem to gain a sense of worth through giving, self-deprivation in service to others. The countertransference guilt over charging a good fee for sessions, or charging for late cancellations conveys an unhealthy message to patients. 


   Narcissistic therapists might over focus on the acquisition of appreciation and fees. While therapists indifferent to fees convey an otherworldly interpersonal cocoon, as though their relationship has nothing to do with money for a service.  This suggests a seductive or emotionally parasitic involvement. After all if the therapist is uncomfortable with money, then how is the patient going to work through these issues? 


   Weissberg (1989) noted that patients more easily talk about sexual positions than their actual financial position. This may involve a transference based on the fear of being exploited as well as the expectation that one does not pay for nurturance. The therapist’s countertransference conflicts might inhibit a therapeutic exploration of fantasies and conflicts about money. Weissberg points out that the main financial negotiations between therapist and patient are setting a fee, modifying the fee to reflect changing conditions, collecting the fee, and dealing with missed hours. Although Weissberg warns that money matters are roads to other irrational conflicts, never the less, the financial arrangement between therapist and patient is essentially a business agreement, in that therapists are selling their training and time as a means of support. 


   Patients often express their resistances and transferences in scheduling and payment conflicts that are highly rationalized.  That is when patients might benefit from a careful combination of reality clarifications of the treatment agreement, the value of treatment and when ready, an interpretation their unconscious fears of the treatment situation. 







Fenichel, O. (1938). The Drive to Amass Wealth. Psychoanal Q., 7, 69-95.


Gordon, R. M. (1975). The effects of interpersonal and economic resources upon      values and the quality of life. (Vol. 36, pp. 3122). US: Univ Microfilms International. 


Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. . (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk. Econometrica, 47, 313-327.


Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., & Diener, E. (2007). Financial aspirations, financial success, and overall life satisfaction: Who? and How? Journal of Happiness Studies, 8(4), 467-515.


PDM Task Force. (2006). Psychodynamic diagnostic manual (PDM). Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations.


Spinella, M., & Lester, D. (2005). Money Attitudes and Personality. Psychological Reports, 96(3), 782.


Weber, B., Rangel, A., Wibral, M., & Falk, A. (2009). The medial prefrontal cortex exhibits money illusion. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(13), 5025-5028.


Weissberg, J.H. (1989). The Fiscal Blind Spot in Psychotherapy. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 17:475-482.

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