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Comment on Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive
Stephen E. G. Lea and Paul Webley
BBS 29 (2): 167-188

Keeping Up with the Joneses: The Desire of the Desire for money


            The biological basis of money lies in a three-term relationship between one subject and some others, with money acting as a mediator. The drive to acquire money is a special case of a desire for recognition. What is aimed at by subjects is their desire for the desire of some others: they derive satisfaction from representing to themselves the admiration of these others or their envy. These raise reproductive advantage.

The object of Lea’s & Webley’s inquiry is to find a “biological basis” for money, meaning a basis reducible to a Darwinian trait such as reproductive advantage. Both their “Tool” and “Drug” approaches refer to a two-term relationship where a subject experiences cognitive and emotional states linked to a representation centred on money. The most obvious instance of this – that the authors unfortunately fail to mention – is sustenance. For anyone below the poverty level, cash remains foremost the means to the essential end of subsistence. “Biological basis” of money needs therefore to be understood in the authors’ analysis as meaning “once cash as a tool for straightforward biological survival has been discounted.” Examples of such a two-term relationship would then be those of Harpagon, Molière’s Miser, clinging to his cherished casket, or Uncle Scrooge, diving and tunnelling swim-like through gold coins and hundred dollar bills in his pool-designed vault. In such cases, cash has been “fetishized,” adulated as such, as a symbol of wealth.

One can talk of a “biological” response to gold because of its shininess and hue, its feature of being rust-proof, leading to its universally evidenced function as a symbol for immortality. Cash made out of paper banknotes and coins of vile metal is of a different nature: its link to riches being conventional it is, in financial parlance, “fiduciary,” requiring an act of trust that a central bank will honour it, guaranteeing it will maintain it in its role of a universal equivalent of worth. The authors mention times (such as in the aftermath of the American Civil War) when convertibility of cash into precious metal got suspended. When this happens, precious metal gets restored in its role of a depository of value, confirming that money as such might very well be – as the authors hint – an entirely cultural phenomenon, impossible to analyze profitably within any alternative framework.

Analyzing money as a cultural phenomenon, beyond immediate survival concerns, does not preclude tracing it back to its “biological basis.” It requires however an extension from a two-term relationship between a subject and money to a three-term relationship, between one subject and at least one other, with money acting as a mediator between the two. In the two-term model, a subject holds a representation of money (as with cash as a “fetish”); in the three-term model, a subject owning money holds a representation of another subject’s representation of him/herself owning that cash.

The three-term nature of money is best illustrated in a “Keeping up with the Joneses” example. “Let’s buy a 70” flat screen TV because the Jones own a 50”!” The drive behind the purchase is not improved viewing (only a secondary benefit here) but competition: the satisfaction obtained derives from representing to oneself the “Joneses’” envious state of mind. By out-competing them we’ve made of ourselves the centre of their own attention: their attention has been captured by us, they are literally speaking, captivated. Money is used as a tool to achieve this effect and its drug-like quality lies in the altered state of consciousness we reach when subordinating some other subjects’ attention to our persons, meaning that we’ve altered at the same time their own mindsets.

Lea & Webley say of their “Tool / Drug” dichotomy that “the two theories seem to exhaust the range of possibilities,” this is correct but as we’ve just seen, not in the simple “either/or” way they imply: the complexity of the relationship requires a more sophisticated model combining both tool and drug within a three-term model. In that perspective, the drive to acquire money amounts to a special case of a desire for recognition. A psychological theory of recognition has been proposed before: its source lies in philosophy where it was initially formulated by G.W.F. Hegel as the “desire of desire”, i.e. my desire for another’s desire, either of an object or, in the case of love, of my own person (Hegel [1807] 1949: 225-227; Roth 1988: 97). The theory was further developed in the twentieth century by Alexandre Kojève (Kojève 1969: 6-7; Roth 1988: 97-99), then given a psychiatric/psychoanalytical formulation by Jacques Lacan (Wilden 1968: 83-85; 192-196). In Lacan’s interpretation, the “desire of desire” becomes the linchpin of a theory of the Self where the sole foundation for my own Self – my proper identity – is the attention other subjects are paying to me, that is, it is constituted of my own capacity at captivating others. What constitutes the subjects’ Self is therefore not internal to them but distributed among a network of other subjects, although centred on them.

When applied specifically to money, the “desire of desire” model means that what is aimed at by subjects through their possession of money is their desire for the desire of some others: the satisfaction they derive from representing to themselves the admiration or the envy of others. The theory is instrumental (it has a “Tool” quality), in that money is in truth sought after to obtain something, but that something is not of a material nature: it is the altered state of consciousness achieved (hence the “Drug” quality) through captivating the attention of a number of other subjects. One example presented by the authors, that of playground exchanges of toys, confirms a “desire of desire” interpretation much more convincingly than it does a “trading instinct” hypothesis of a drug-like nature, as it is the simple fact that another child holds an object that makes it desirable for a second one.
As for the Darwinian fitness advantage that money confers, subjects who are admired extend the range of their potential partners, gaining access in particular to those who are themselves objects of admiration. The overall benefit of admiration is fitness or reproductive advantage. Cash is a universal tool to this aim. Or, said slightly differently, the psychological function of money turns out to be precisely what the popular press assumes it to be.


Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology, trans. J. B. Baillie, Rev. 2d ed. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949

Kojève, Alexandre, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr., A. Bloom (ed.), New York: Agora Paperback Editions, 1969

Roth, Michael S., Knowing and History. Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France, Cornell University Press, 1988

Wilden, Anthony, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1968

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