Who controls your money decisions

alain de botton

Modern day philosopher and writer Alain de Botton wrote a provocative article in The Wall Street Journal entitled Why most men aren’t man enough to handle web porn. While this title may seem completely irrelevant to personal finance (apart from the amount of money some men may be spending on porn), De Button’s arguments around the destructive influence of the proliferation of pornography on the internet are just as relevant to how our daily interactions influence our money decisions.

In his article De Botton talks about “a brain, originally designed to cope with nothing more tempting than an occasional glimpse of a tribesperson across the savannah, is lost with what’s now on offer on the net at the click of a button”. De Botton goes on to make an astute comment about the deluge of information, data and spam that is thrown at us every day through advertising, social media and the internet: “There is nothing robust enough in our psychological make-up to compensate for developments in our technological capacities.”

The human brain is ultimately very susceptible to what it is exposed to. We are mostly oblivious to the subliminal messages we receive every day from advertisers through the internet, magazines, billboards and TV programmes. These mediums are able to influence our minds around what it means to be “successful”, about the type of car, the type of clothes, the type of watch and ultimately the type of lifestyle we should be living. Anything less and we are “failures” and “misfits”. If we don’t conform to the messages “we don’t belong’ or ‘we have not arrived’. The sad reality is that our choices are not really ours.

“We are vulnerable to what we read and see. Things don’t just wash over us. We are passionate and for the most part unreasonable creatures buffeted by destructive hormones and desires, which means that we are never far from losing sight of our real long-term ambitions. Though this vulnerability may insult our self-image, the wrong pictures may indeed send us down a bad track,” writes De Botton.

In his book Blink author Malcolm Gladwell describes a test carried out by psychologist John Bargh called a priming experiment where students are given the simple task of unscrambling sentences. Whilst they are focused on turning the words into meaningful sentences they are unaware that their brains are being fed subliminal messages. In one test many of the sentences contained works like “worried”, “lonely”, “gray” and “wrinkled”. Students were observed walking in and out of the examination room and researchers compared this group to another set of students who had had not had exposure to those words. The students affected by “elderly” words walked out the room slower after the test and also walked more slowly than the other group of students who not been exposed to them.

In another experiment one set of students was exposed to sentences with words like “bold”, “rude”, “intrude” while another group had sentences had words like “yield”, “polite, “courteous”. The students exposed to the more aggressive words were found to be less patient whilst those exposed to the “polite” words were found to be significantly more patient.

If such a simple experiment over a short period of time can influence our behaviour,  what about the effects of what we are exposed to day in and day out by the interactions we have? What level of influence do advertisers, credit providers and social networks and our peers have on us?

As De Botton notes, “the entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs”. Is it any wonder then that we struggle to stick to resolutions or goals that push back against the consumerist onslaught? It has gone so far that we are no longer described as “citizens” but are now referred to as “consumers”.

Being as vulnerable as we are to other peoples agendas we need to take back our power and learn to make decisions based on what we know to be true about our real needs, our real value systems.

We need to make decisions in what Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, calls our “cold state”, in other words when our rational mind is in control. We are most certainly in a cold state when writing down our budget and are faced with the hard reality of our financial situation. It is then that we are able to make choices that make financial sense.

The next step is to remove temptation when we are in our “hot state” and that that starts with cutting up the credit cards and store cards. It is time we took back our power as citizens rather than giving it away as consumers.

This article first appeared in City Press.

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