If you’ve ever struggled to learn new software or unravel a computer problem, you know that part of the frustration of dealing with technology is its logic. Computers respond according to their default operating systems. If we want them to do something different, they need to be reprogrammed.
In the same way, the default operating systems of our brains are actually programmed to make poor financial decisions. This is normal. Making good financial decisions actually takes a deliberate reprogramming of your internal operating system. Here is why.
Our brains are divided into three sections: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the prefrontal cortex.
The reptilian brain is the oldest, most primitive part. In a talk at the Financial Therapy Association’s annual conference in July 2015 in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, Dr. Ted Klontz explained that the reptilian brain continually scans for threats. It is waiting for death to come walking through the doorway, so it lives in anxiety. Since anything positive is not a threat, it’s oblivious to the positive. It also doesn’t understand the concept of the future, but lives only in this moment.
Left to its own programming, then, of course the reptilian brain might have a problem making monthly contributions to a retirement account. Saving for the future isn’t a concept it even understands. Further, it sees taking money out of the checkbook as a threat because that leaves fewer resources to battle death when it comes through the doorway. Making things even worse, the reptilian brain is nearly impossible to change. The best most of us can do is manage it.
This brings us to the mammalian brain, whose only job is to manage the anxiety of the reptilian brain. It does so in three ways:
1. Remove the threat (fight),
2. Run away from the threat (flight),
3. Get small and disappear to hide from the threat (freeze).
Most of us favor one of these three responses to threats, and according to Dr. Klontz we select our preferred response by the age of six. When the mammalian brain responds, it processes exponentially faster than the thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. Because of the ease with which the mammalian brain responds to threats, 90% of all decisions—including financial ones—are made here.
With the mammalian brain managing the anxiety of the reptilian brain, we have a more sophisticated response to our potential retirement plan contribution. Some of us will verbally fight and defeat any messenger (article, employer, financial advisor, spouse) that suggests we drain our current resources to send money into a black hole. Others will simply flee the messenger by diverting our attention to the Monday night football game or any task at hand. A portion of us will just freeze into a glassy-eyed stare. Nobody is home.
That leaves us with our only hope, the understanding and thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain doesn’t fully come on line until the mid-twenties. It functions as the parent of the other two brains, but unfortunately it processes information very slowly and with great effort.
Fortunately, this is the brain that is easiest to change. By training it to become aware when the lower parts of the brain are about to make a hair-trigger decision, we can stop the ensuing action long enough to add logic as well as emotion to the process.
Reprogramming the brain takes time, practice, and using resources like education, mentors, advisors, and counseling. Eventually, wise financial choices like saving for retirement can become the new default programming, even in spite of the reptilian brain.