An employee of Giesecke + Devrient is checking a banknote
#Banknote Solutions

Security by heart and haptics

6 Mins.

People don’t want to just see things; they want to experience them – to touch, to smell, to hear, and maybe even to taste them. That’s truer than ever in times of increasing digitalization, and it’s also something that applies persistently to the cash we all use. Dr. Julia Pitters, a professor and head of the Business Psychology program at IU International University of Applied Sciences, explains how the perception of cash has changed in the past two years of crises and uncertainty.

In your lectures and interviews, you have recently noted an increased interest in cash. Are we facing a “renaissance of cash”?

There can be no talk of a “renaissance”; cash was, is, and will remain strong. At present, however, the big, almost all-dominant, overriding issue of “security” is playing a decisive role – currently, above all, data security, which has been exacerbated by the COVID crisis. We live in an age in which we can, must, or should disclose incomparably more data than ever before. This causes a degree of unease among some, but at the same time reinforces the uniqueness of cash: with cash, I’m not giving away data whose route I don’t know or can’t control.

So, the increased interest is also a reaction to the increasingly transparent individual?

Yes, and that’s why many people are looking for a kind of “place of retreat” – at least when it comes to paying. They are most likely to find this place in cash.

Does this also mean that crises make people conservative?

Crises lead us to fall back to the tried and true. This turning to what is safe is an unconscious, as well as an understandable, reaction. When I am insecure because everything around me is changing, I rely on what I know. People in a crisis unconsciously reinforce what they know, and thus defend their value system.

Dr. Julia Pitters, IU International University of Applied Sciences

In addition to all the uncertainty, the behavior of different generations is meeting head on: those who have grown up “digitalized” meeting “the analogs.”

That’s right, and this is linked to different notions of security: the older people who are returning to what they know will now rely even more on cash. The younger ones, on the other hand, may find their security in newer, digital ways such as central bank digital currency (CBDC) – which, however, can also play out its advantages irrespective of age.

But if we just stay with cash for now: how can cash be designed in such a way that means it remains attractive to younger, digital generations?

By making it clear that in a world that is digitalizing at an ever-faster pace, we are depriving ourselves of quite a lot in the way of sensory experience. We run the risk of losing our connection to the object; the digital reduces our senses almost exclusively to seeing and hearing. The haptics that enable us to feel, smell, and taste things are atrophying. For many, however, cash is so central in their everyday lives and experiences that they just don’t want to click.

And this is the lever for understanding the “generation gap” in cash?

It is at least a way to find out how important the topic is for the respective users. And it can then be made clear to the younger target group, for example, that an increasingly radical reduction of haptic communication to purely digital methods is not fully exploiting their capacities.

So, while one half is socialized as “analog” and sees a safe haven in haptics, the other half is growing up “digital” and thus with a different concept of security. Can “safety through haptics” be extended to both groups?

A 20-year-old is naturally more open to alternatives; they are simply less shy of technology and don’t have to first overcome any inhibition or threshold. In Germany in particular, younger people are still quite open to cash. They know it, have experienced it, have dealt with it, and know that it works. This is also interesting in terms of economic psychology: when people see or possess cash, something changes in their brains and their thinking. These are unconscious processes that also play a role within younger people.

A young woman is paying with european banknotes

As you’ve said, cash activates our reward system and is not that dissimilar to food.

This “monetary stimulus” does something to us; it triggers a kind of “goal attainment reflex.” We want to have it and own it; it makes us more ambitious. Cash alternatives don’t trigger something like that yet. These triggers, these stimuli work best with the haptics of real money.

And, of course, that extends into the design of cash: the perception of cash, for example, is quite different when it depicts people rather than the kind of stylized bridges and arches that currently characterize euro banknotes.

That may be true; however, with the current euro payment instruments, the European Central Bank has achieved what every country, every region, and every government strives for: universal identification. The countries in the eurozone have identified themselves with the EU far more strongly than those that have not joined the monetary union.

That also raises the question of whether, in an increasingly uncertain world, stronger means of identification and new, better means of communication are more necessary than ever?

That’s where it becomes fundamentally important again to integrate symbols with recognition and identification value. People always find identity for themselves when they can form a group with those who are like them. In this way, we distinguish ourselves from others. The eurozone can also distinguish itself from those who are not part of it – by defining values and symbols that it, and its inhabitants, can be proud of, which constitute the European idea.

Does that also suggest a “return to haptics”?

Above all, this means consistently focusing on what makes cash cash per se: the feel, the design, the identification, and the unique combination. That is what makes the banknote so precious. Virtualizing them in terms of appearance and haptics makes little sense to me. It would make much more sense to work with a kind of “collector effect.” People are hunters – they have the need to own something special.

And that’s a reflex that could be addressed via cash?

Yes, by making every single bill special, making it a “collector's item”: a haptic experience that appeals to the heart! Cash is, after all, a gift from the state to its citizens. A gift that is based on a certain idea, that is associated with costs and efforts. This value of money should come more to the fore again.

Because from the combination of heart and haptics comes more than just a placing of the value on the appearance?

I would even go one step further: every banknote should inform about the real benefits of cash and should educate and raise awareness. To do this, we need to make it even clearer what its advantages are in terms of data security and anonymity. Especially – but not only – toward the younger target group. In addition to its function as a means of payment, we should also understand and use cash as a conveyor of data protection and more.

Published: 16/09/2022

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