Last week’s column discussed the belief of social anthropologist Dr. Jennifer James that the United States is currently in a society-wide “moral void” when it comes to the economy. By moral void, she doesn’t mean a lack of morality, but rather a time of panic and inability to make logical and common-sense decisions.
During periods of fear and stress, such as the current economic crisis, the part of the brain that uses logic and facts to make decisions is overwhelmed by the more primitive part of the brain that operates emotionally. The result is individual and collective financial decisions made out of fear and panic.
What we call “society” or “culture,” of course, is actually the accumulation of a great many people’s individual beliefs. Changing our cultural beliefs about money and the economy, then, starts with changing our individual beliefs.
1. One of the first steps in this process is to become aware of the effect fear has on the brain. We can teach ourselves not to make decisions when we’re aware of being overtaken or “flooded” by strong emotion. When you’re overwhelmed by bad financial news, for example, there is a strong urge to do something quickly to relieve the fear and panic the news creates. When you recognize this need to take action for the emotional brain response that it is, you can train yourself not to respond to it immediately. Instead, you can give yourself time to get past the fear before you do anything.
2. During a time of fear, it helps a great deal to bring your brain back into equilibrium before you act. It often helps to allow yourself a time of quiet reflection, deep breathing, and focusing on something other than the fearful money scripts shouting that you “Have to do something right now!”
3. Become aware that the fear urging you to act is based on your money scripts, the deep beliefs about money anchored primarily in the unconscious, emotional part of your brain. Most of us have perhaps 50 to a couple hundred money scripts operating constantly. They are partial truths, but we assume them to be absolutely true. The more we are aware of those scripts, the less power they have.
4. Learn to question and reframe your money scripts. Once you identify a money script, you can begin to revise it by considering alternatives—imagining situations where it might be true, false, or partially true. Research shows that people who function best around money have flexible rather than rigid belief systems about money.
5. Align yourself with others who appear to be what you want to become. Conversations with others who are just as fearful as you are only reinforce and build everyone’s fear. Instead, seek out friends and financial advisors who can help ease your fears and help you become more comfortable with new ways of thinking.
6. Build a solid base of knowledge. When you understand the basics of money management and investing, especially the concept of thinking for the long term, you are less likely to be overcome by fear during challenging financial times.
Culture, according to Dr. James, is “The stories you tell yourself about how things ought to be, usually at a very young age.”
An important component of financial health is accepting financial reality and working with the way things are instead of the way we wish they were or think they ought to be. When we change our individual stories about money, we change what we teach our children and how we act financially. This can be the start of creating a more realistic and healthier culture around money.