#94: The main reason your relationship with money is so messed up
4th July, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that money makes you blind to what is most important to be seeing, including:
- Why, despite promising otherwise, money tends to make you less adaptable, not more.
- Why you should seek the ‘security’ of a waterfall, not a stagnant pond.
- And the importance of being on guard not only against stupidly blind thinking, but blindness to the blindness.
You know money with only half a brain. And it’s the stupid half. This prevents you making more (a lot more) of your money. This is part of a long series of short lessons mapping the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read (Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things) to our relationships with money, in the hope of helping you do something about this in the most foundationally practical (long-term workable!) way.
The way money makes us blind, and the way it makes us blind to our blindness – the way it supercharges our self-deception – are big problems. Because money has such a dominant role in our daily decisions, and by extension how we both shape and express our worldviews.
The exact same thing can be said about the left hemisphere.
Our own culture is unbalanced in the degree to which the left hemisphere’s take predominates. And, unfortunately, the left hemisphere is decidedly imperceptive – and so is unaware there is a problem.
It is, as McGilchrist put it, ‘not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, [that] is the death of knowledge.’
Most folk that have read more than the odd bit of airport fiction can valuably and accurately say something about ‘survival of the fittest’ being about your ability to adapt to inevitably shifting circumstances rather than your ability to kill stuff before it kills you.
Despite promising some nonsense about ‘opportunities’, money (at least in the typical way it is attended to) doesn’t make adapting to shifting circumstances easier. It makes it harder. Because it reduces everything to ‘buy the answer’, which, if repeated often enough, leaves its believer incapable of doing anything other than opening their wallet. It excuses rather than encourages character development.
Think of all the common uses of big chunks of cash – are they not to try to control circumstances? Are they not vain attempts to fix everything external in place, as if then, and only then, one may live happily ever after?
When it comes to detecting unexpected change, the left hemisphere is relatively blind compared with the right hemisphere.
Focussed attention, the only kind the left hemisphere can offer, makes us blind to almost anything, however arresting and however close, that happens to be going on outside our sphere of concern at that moment in time.
‘Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition,’ wrote Daniel Dennett, ‘is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others – and ourselves – about who we are.’
We saw earlier the protective shell-like function of this story. When we talk of strengthening it, the immediate temptation is to thicken the shell. However, it is not a fatter fortress we want, but a more flexible one. We see fortresses and spring into a story about strength. To do so is to forget that the fortress’s strength was an adaptation to its environment, and it is the adaptation – the fittedness to its environment – not the thickness of its walls, on which we should focus. When threats change, thick walls are not easy to change with them; the signs of domination can become the seeds of decay. The perfect shield against medieval weaponry becomes the perfect screen for being blind to opportunities.
Much of financial planning is about seeking security. Yet poorly done it is more often the security of a stagnant pond, not a beautiful waterfall.
The left hemisphere, like money, makes us ‘see’ in a very specific way. A way that is helpful for analysing things within a narrow context, but truly horribly unhelpful at seeing things in a more meaningful and purposeful way… a wiser way.
Staring is a special kind of vision, in itself predatory: left hemisphere attention gets locked onto its target. As a result it more easily misses everything else.
This in itself would be a pretty big issue, worthy of being constantly on guard against. However, it gets worse. Because when you’re stuck in left-hemisphere mode (or when your money-blinkers are welded to your face) you not only don’t see what you should see, which is stupid, but also don’t see the stupidity.
The right hemisphere-damaged subject, overly committed to the left hemisphere mode of simply putting together the pieces, joining the dots, and following procedures, is unable to appreciate that the picture he arrives at is bizarre and incoherent. He placidly accepts the preposterous nature of his conclusions, and, if things seem improbable or awry, he no longer feels the strange or surprising nature of them. They fail comprehensively to alert him, in the way that they normally should, that there is an aberration.
Please don’t think this doesn’t apply to you because you don’t have ‘actual’ brain damage. Because when money gets involved, the effect is the same.
McGilchrist goes on to link this to something we’ve covered plenty of times before, namely how money gets us stuck repeating the same mistakes. How it makes us fail to observe and internalise that whatever we’re sure will work this time didn’t work last time, or didn’t work for the people that tried it a thousand times before we did.
In the modern Western world, we are constantly crashing, and puzzled as to why; constantly faced with paradoxical outcomes to our actions […] We often find that we strive for something and achieve its precise opposite. Why is that? I suggest it is because our currently dominant model of reality is mistaken.
I’m reminded here – as I hope one or two of you may be – of the Krista Tippett passage I quoted in Idiot Money #63, in which she recounts a story from her days as a foreign correspondent in then-divided Berlin, that made her rethink the role money played in a life well lived, as it had been shaped by growing up in money-blinkered America:
This realization [being drawn more and more to the ‘poor’ Eastern side of Berlin] unsettled my sense of personal progress and education: it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life; it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.
As I commented then:
Does it strike you that it’s possible to read a line like that and not be stopped by its strangeness? You may have just done so. If you live in a world where you can (without noticing) in effect say ‘intimacy and dignity and beauty are nothing’ then it’s probably time to question that’s the right world to live in.
And yet how many – despite feeling like something is off, or ‘missing’ despite ‘having everything’ – ever question if ‘having’ another ‘thing’, rather than being the answer, is actually the problem?
When [the left hemisphere] is presented with evidence that what it is doing is not working, its invariable response is first to deny that there is a problem, but, if pushed, to respond not that we have done too much of something that is ineffective, but that we simply need to do more of it: because that’s what its theory dictates, and for the left hemisphere theory trumps reality.
We keep making the same mistakes, oblivious even to the fact that, despite not working, they are, in fact, mistakes […] Mistakes rooted in a belief that it’s external circumstances that determine the quality of a life, rather than how well one is set up to dance with those circumstances. This belief leads people to dedicate their resources to changing the quality of their lives by changing their worlds, rather than their worldviews.
A little bonus lesson on inductive reasoning and the Einstellung effect:
Inductive reasoning lies behind the so-called Einstellung effect. This is the tendency to get fixed in one’s method of approach, so that one fails to see other, better, ways of seeing a situation, or of tackling a problem. Once one has mastered a way of doing something that works well enough in one situation, one tends to carry on applying the same method to situations or problems in which it is inferior or inappropriate.
Which is about a fine a summary of both believing the answer to a problem is ‘more money’, and most of the financial-planning world’s box of sales tricks. (See also this from me on local and global maxima).
Back to McGilchrist:
In a test devised by Abraham Lucins in 1942, [The Einstellung effect] increased with age in adults, and was somewhat more marked in females than in males. […] It has since been found, as mentioned, to be less prominent in non-Westerners, who are more flexible in their thinking.
That would be the West that is increasingly beset by a hyper-individual, excessively narrow-minded, money-based worldview.
Westerners ‘may never even consider that the problem could have multiple solutions, until explicitly told “Don’t be afraid to try new things” which clearly states the possibility of multiple solutions.’
The left hemisphere, in effect, ‘says’: ‘It’s seemed OK round here to date, so there isn’t a problem.’ The right hemisphere is on alert for things you should adapt to. ‘The left is too busy getting the next bonus.’
Next post in the Whole-Brain Personal Finance series: