Here is a paper that might put a new lens on the previously discussed Alter and Oppenheimer money familiarity study (or perhaps vice versa). In "The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance," Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely discuss the results of a series of cheating experiments. In the experiments students are paid 50 cents for each question they get right on a test. Some of the experimental conditions provide an opportunity to cheat by allowing students to self report their scores. The surprising finding is that cheating dramatically increases when tokens are given to students instead of cash, even though these tokens can be exchanged for cash at a station only a few feet away. The authors of the Dishonesty study believe there is something special about cash. It is why people might take home a few office supplies but they are much less likely to take the equivalent value out of petty cash. Moral ambiguity is erased.
Perhaps there is a related effect at play in Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer’s research. $2 bills, Susan B. Anthony dollars, and altered bills play the role of tokens. Like the tokens in the Dishonesty study people rationally know they have equivalent value to cash (ironically a token of value in its own right). However, in practice tokens and cash are not the same since people behave differently by say, increasing their cheating or having a willingness to part with a token at a discount. Of course we beg the question of why $2 bills are tokens and $1 bills are not. We may be back to familiarity.
Another take is that familiarity is playing a role in the Dishonesty study. There could be a discounting of the unfamiliar tokens taking place. People are cheating the same “amount” but they need more of the discounted tokens to steal the equivalent perceptual value.