#89: The tell-tale signs of a poor financial worldview
30th May, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by training yourself to catch your money-triggered idiocy, including a foundationally important list of 20 things to look out for to catch yourself being an idiot with money.
This is part of a series mapping our relationships with money to the foundationally important work of Iain McGilchrist, as set out in the two best non-fiction books I've ever read. Because you know money with only half a brain, and it’s the stupid half. And this, more than anything else, prevents you making more (a lot more) of the money in your life.
Learning to spot the signature of poor financial decisions can help you both stop making them, and gradually wire your worldview so you stop even thinking about making them.
It is understandable, when someone recommends you read 3,500 pages of pretty dense stuff about the brain and the nature of reality – or, as I’m doing with this series of posts, to walk you through the main lessons from those pages as they relate to the screwy way we relate to money – to ask: ‘What’s the point?’
‘Is it really worth my while?’ some of you have asked. ‘Or is it just intellectual posturing?’
‘Am I really embarking on a transformative experience, or am I a pawn in your attempt to justify the sacrifice you’ve made by reading it yourself, just as you delight in pointing out how most wealth is used purely to justify the sacrifices inherent in its acquisition?’
‘And even if it is so brilliant, what am I supposed to do with it all? How does learning about the two ways my brain pays attention to the world – even adding in how the less-helpful way maps perfectly to how money makes me view the world – help me make more of my money, let alone live a more flourishing, flowing, potential-fulfilling life?’
As with any work of genuine artistic merit, the major benefits of a work as rich as this are ineffable. The real value is experiential; it’s not something that can be ‘extracted’. That would be like trying to paraphrase a poem, or transmit the value of a psychedelic experience through any medium short of telepathy. If you can do something justice – or even improve something – by summarising it, it probably wasn’t all that valuable to start with.
That said, the one thing that can definitely be stated is that the better you recognise the ‘signature’ of your left hemisphere’s take on the world, the better you can check yourself before blindly doing dumb things with your money, and your life.
Everybody I know that’s made friends with these books reports seeing applications everywhere. They better understand the previously mysterious quirks of themselves, their friends, and all the dumb sh!t they encounter throughout the day. ‘Why is that mad thing happening?’ becomes ‘Oh, that’s so left hemisphere!’
you want to train to notice the signature of the brain damage, to become aware of when the take on reality upon which you’re relying for guidance about what to do is probably leading you in a silly direction, however tempting and clever and internally coherent it may appear.
Because all behaviour change is brain change, and brain change is a discipline of where, and how, to pay attention, becoming wiser with money is ultimately about catching yourself possibly about to blindly do something dumb and consciously checking in before acting, in a way that gradually refines your decision-making skills so you make better decisions by default.
Changing a worldview means changing your brain: training to catch the times when you’re most in danger of viewing things through a shoddy set of lenses, and consciously checking if you’re maybe being an idiot, and, if you are, dancing off down a different path, until eventually you build a better set of default patterns, such that the right way becomes the easy way, whether that’s automatically being drawn towards the foods that your body actually wants to build itself out of, not being a dick on the Internet, or making better financial decisions because of developing better financial decision-making skills, rather than because of some cumbersome and unreliable cognitive effort.
Learning to spot the signature moves of your left hemisphere gives you a major advantage in this process.
Twenty of the left hemisphere’s signature moves, together with some quick examples of what they look like in money terms, are listed below.
Though broken down into a list for easier consumption (as the left hemisphere likes!), do not forget to see these in context (a right-hemisphere skill), as an interdependent web: the shapers and expressors of a worldview, not a series of isolated, independent quirks.
Most quotes below come from McGilchrist imagining ‘what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that […] it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether. What would that be like?’ I contend it would be a lot like what happens when money hijacks the way in which we pay attention to our lives.
1. Prioritising mechanical parts over human wholes – ‘A narrow focus that sees only details, or parts, with no sense of how they fit into a coherent whole. Indeed, the whole, because it cannot be clear or certain, is simply disregarded.’ For example, believing that excess money ‘offsets’ poor health, or getting lost in the calculation of a tax scheme with no sense of what that scheming says about you.
2. Prioritising the material over the living – ‘Because there are no whole things, there are no human things. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. This includes prioritising the virtual over the real.’ Hi NFTs! Also hello believing that consumption is a substitute for connection.
3. Prioritising information gathering over experiential understanding – ‘Because of an ever more narrowly focussed attention, there is an increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge, and a substitution of information for experiential understanding, and wisdom, because it can’t be grasped, would be usurped by mere knowledge, which comes with a stamp of approval from the Gods of randomised controlled trials.’ For example, financial planning that even when it says it’s about people is still seeing the world through product-selling lenses, treating the problem, not the patient.
4. Prioritising expert knowledge over expertise – ‘In turn, expertise would be replaced by “expert” knowledge (that would have in fact to be based on theory) and in general one would expect a tendency to replace the concrete with the theoretical or abstract, which would come to seem more convincing.’ For example, expertise in living well (philosophy) is overridden by investing tips and life hacks. See also how there are more courses on how to make better decisions through quantifiable and repeatable processes than there are on how to improve your default decision-making skills. I’ll have a lot more to say about financial ‘experts’ one day.
5. Prioritising algorithmic decision-making procedures over developing decision-making skills – ‘Skills themselves would be reduced to algorithmic procedures which could be drawn up, and even if necessary regulated, by administrators.’ For example, believing that budgeting well is about finding a cleverer spending app, rather than examining your life.
6. Prioritising abstract work over real work – ‘Fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with anything in the real, “lived” world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management and bureaucratic procedures.’ For example, replacing (often extraordinarily subtly, and very convincingly) an understanding of what it means to live well with playing with a cashflow model (something I’ll write about extensively before too long, given what a well-intentioned distillation but ultimately depressing disease it is of the financial-planning world.)
7. Prioritising numbers over narratives – ‘Numbers, which the left hemisphere feels familiar with and is excellent at manipulating (though, it may be remembered, it is less good at understanding what they mean), would come to replace the response to individuals, whether people, places, things or circumstances, which the right hemisphere would have distinguished.’ For example, basically half of my book, especially numbers over narrative as a major expression of financial self-deception, and confusing price and value.
8. Prioritising conspicuous consumption over context and connection – ‘Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place […] would be neglected […] There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in society’s relationship with its members.’ For example the myriad lessons contained in this story from the Italian mountains.
9. Prioritising competition over collaboration – ‘Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world.’ Collaboration is the combination of competition and co-operation, except money cons us into drastically seeing only the former. This really messes up our view of reality, which, as we’ve seen, is our relationships.
10. Prioritising uniformity over uniqueness – ‘Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others.’ For all the appearance of money driving increased personalisation and therefore uniqueness, seen below the veil-thin surface, this is clearly nonsense, for the personalisation in this context is proof that you’re playing the same silly performative game.
11. Prioritising pigeonholes and passive exposure over people and creative expression – ‘Individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on […] In relation to culture, we would expect people to become increasingly passive. They would see themselves as “exposing” themselves before culture, like a photographic plate to light, or even think of themselves as “being exposed” to such things.’ For example, tying net worth to self worth, or identity to job title or consumption (rather than the other way around). And of course buggering up ‘buying experiences’.
12. Prioritising freedom to and freedom from over freedom for – ‘Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed.’ For example, the three types of financial freedom.
13. Prioritising opportunity having over opportunity seizing – ‘In such a society people of all kinds would attach an unusual importance to being in control.’ For example, seeing the value of money as ‘opportunity’, and failing to see that ability and responsibility are intertwined.
14. Prioritising ‘security’ and ‘certainty’ – ‘There would be a preoccupation, which might even reach to be an obsession, with certainty and security.’ Something about ‘security’ is of course the first thing just about everybody says when asked what matters about money to them. And ‘certainty’ is the curse that runs through all financial planning (again, something I’ll write about in much more depth when I dare to take on cashflow modelling).
15. Prioritising inflexibility over fluidity when considering the future – ‘There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.’ Another one for the cashflow can be calamitously misleading file. See also the pervasiveness in planning one’s future of the end of history illusion.
16. Prioritising acquisitive desires over self-fulfilment desires – ‘There would be a lack of will-power in the sense of self-control and self-motivation, but not of will in the sense of acquisitive greed and desire to manipulate.’ For example, this on acquisitiveness, and this on the focus on fitting in at the expense of living in a flowing, flourishing, fulfilling way.
17. Prioritising the ‘what’ over the ‘how’ – ‘We could expect a rise in the determination to carry out procedures by rote, and perhaps an increasing efficiency at doing so, without this necessarily being accompanied by an understanding of what they mean.’ For example, mistaking standard of living with access to comfort.
18. Prioritising surface stimulation over marrow-deep meaning and the novel over the new – ‘It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of nausea and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.’ For example, money’s role in the meaning crisis (see, e.g. most posts in this series) and how we can talk of someone ‘having everything’ and yet still feel like something is ‘missing’.
19. Prioritising the explicit over the implicit – ‘As a culture, we would come to discard tacit forms of knowing altogether. There would be a remarkable difficulty in understanding non-explicit meaning, and a downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness.’ For example, the dominance in knowing money only propositionally and procedurally, and the underlying idiocy of ‘retirement’ as a goal.
20. Prioritising racing towards conclusions over revelling in ambiguity – ‘There would be a loss of tolerance for, and appreciation of the value of, ambiguity. We would tend to be over-explicit in the language we used to approach art and religion, accompanied by a loss of their vital, implicit and metaphorical power.’ We’re back at the calamity of cashflow modelling (as it is commonly used in practice) again. See also the foolishness of most ‘goals-based planning’ approaches. And the ignorance of the fact that life is a dance, not a race, something to make soulful art out of, not something to direct towards buying art to adorn soulless walls.
I refer to the left hemisphere as the stupid half of your brain largely for dramatic effect. It’s obviously not completely crackers. It’s very good at what it does within limits, but it’s very bad at knowing those limits and staying within them. Because of the way money is uniquely woven into your worldview, this is especially true – and especially important – when it comes to making the most of your personal finances.
As McGilchrist wrote:
The main point in Part I has not been so much to demonstrate the left hemisphere’s weakness in this or that area: it has been to demonstrate that the differences are stark in every area relevant to making sense of the world. What I think I have shown in these chapters is that the left hemisphere is, compared with the right hemisphere, unreliable in just about every way that matters.
We link money to ‘what matters’ in a bizarre, bastardised, way. Everything I write is an attempt to help correct this.
‘The left hemisphere,’ wrote McGilchrist, ‘appears to have difficulty understanding the real world, the one in which we actually live, and move, and have our being. But then comes the realisation: it doesn’t have to.’ Money doesn’t have to play the role it does in most of our decisions. Which, given the way it messes them up, is rather good news. But it will only stay in its place if we make a conscious effort to keep it there.
Next post in the Whole-Brain Personal Finance series: