Meditations on money mania: Why we gorge on the financial buffet

October 24, 2011

Are you a money maniac? While finishing up Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang,” his latest book on the financial meltdown, I was intrigued by a few of his observations on a cultural and psychological malady.

Since some of my academic training is in psychology, I’ll take a stab at what I think is going on. We spend (and eat) too much because the culture encourages it at every turn, but we have the ability to resist temptation. We’re hardwired to do the wrong thing, yet can still make rational decisions.

There’s also a part of the brain that Lewis didn’t really explore in much depth. I’m not sure what it’s called, but it involves conflating risk with the likelihood of financial success. Behavioral economists have many descriptions of these miscues. One might call it intentional and persistent denial.

Invest in the stock market through your 401(k) and forget about the risk to your long-term wealth! Use those multiple credit-card offers you get in the mail every week to borrow to the hilt! Get an extra 10-percent off at the department store if you sign up with their onerous credit plan!

We just can’t escape what I call “the buffet effect.” All of these financial goodies are laid out all the time for one seemingly low price. So we gorge on this table of plenty, only to later find out how empty financial calories can hurt us. Many of us just can’t help ourselves. That’s our culture. We’re not only in the land of plenty, we’re in the never-never land of too much.

When I eventually waded through Lewis’s perversely scatological insights on Germans and wondered if Icelandic men were really that overconfident that they could morph from fishermen to currency traders in a matter of weeks, I found a real nugget in the research of Peter Whybow a psychiatrist and neuroscientist.

Dr. Whybow, author of the more useful American Mania: Why More Is Not Enough, says it’s our “lizard brain” that is driving our overconsumption. After all, when we were living in caves (and much earlier), we hoarded food and firewood and worried about saber-tooth tigers. Now we substitute debt-driven obsessions for those primal concerns. Maybe we squirrel away credit cards because of a misperception of scarcity.

Did those Wall Street bankers and Main Street borrowers put their lizard brains in overdrive during the bubble years and ignore the more-evolved parts of the neocortex that engaged self-regulation? While that can’t be measured in any meaningful way, it’s as good a theory as any. Maybe the buffet effect was such a cultural imperative that it got the better of those who couldn’t say no.

“What is it about the way our brains are wired that makes the risk and competition of the market place so compelling?” Dr. Whybow asks on his website.

That leaves us with a dilemma as a species. How do we squelch the lizard brain and move on?  I thought I might find some insights by taking the mania quiz Whybow offers online. When my results came up, the text was a question: “do you live in a monastery?” Not much help there. I’m certainly no saint.

Does that mean that I’m more ascetic than most Americans because I tend to favor saving over spending? If so, then I hope that’s a partial answer.

For years, my mantra has been to save at least 10 percent of my pre-tax income; more if I can. I place savings above spending when I pay my monthly bills. If I know I can’t cover an item that I put on my credit-card bill that month, I don’t buy it. This is pretty standard stuff for living within one’s means.

Yet what I’m describing is a forced behavior and not any personality trait. I don’t think we’re born savers or spenders. We can largely choose what we want to do and be.

Of course, I think there’s lots of research that shows you’ll likely have money problems if you have a substance abuse issue, relationship problems or mood disorders. If that’s the case, see a doctor or therapist.

We need to embrace a different, more realistic and less emotional narrative if we’re to ensure our financial survival.

Home investments are not risk-free. Stocks do not get less risky over time. Bonds can go down in value. Inflation never really goes away. We can’t out-trade machines that use high-speed algorithms moving at the speed of light. We can never know more than a market of professionals with a world of information at their fingertips. Greed is always good — for Wall Street.

If none of these realities boomerang to change our mass financial behavior, then perhaps one thing will: Only self-discipline will work in prioritizing saving over the mania of unbridled debt. We have to start with ourselves.



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It’s interesting that the fundamental message within this article lies in Christian doctrine. Self-control with your urge to spend (or hoard), or in making rash financial decisions fueled by emotions. Live within your means. Money problems are linked to other issues. Responsibility, accountability, patience, self-control, self-denial… I know there was no Christian basis mentioned in this article, but John’s “sensibility” I guess you could call it, is something we whould all have within us, especially Christians. We, as followers of Christ, are called to be liberal with our money, but also to save for those stormy times when immediate finances take a major hit.

Posted by BigZ1981 | Report as abusive

This is a mostly secular point of view, but the idea of self control is embedded in nearly every major religion. I think Shakespeare said it best: “to thine own self be true.”

Posted by johnwasik | Report as abusive

Lewis is really a mixed bag, though always a wonderful read. Personally I got hooked on Roger Lowenstein with “Genius Failed”, and find Lewis a pop culture equivalent.

But, the operating work here is neither Lewis or Lowenstein but good old Alex Tocqueville, who remains the only writer to give me deep insight into American culture. 1831 and Alex is pulling a gov’ment funded boondoggle and touring… well, the boonies. He observes an incredibly materialist culture, but also one that is deep in Calvinist religion. He ponders that a bit, and wonders what happens when the materialism is not checked by the moralism. Goldman Sachs maybe?

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

FYI, funny story – Iceland. Early in WW II the Brits needed to protect their N. Lant convoys so they invaded Iceland and built an airbase at Keflavik. Very quickly the relationship between the Brits and Iceies went very sour, and we ended up having to step in and take over the base (when the Brits left they dynamited their buildings in Reyk rather than turn them over to Iceland, there were still embedded fragments visible in buildings as late as ’72).

FF to circa ’72-73. The base at Kef is now key to ASW activity against Soviet subs in N.Lant, and Iceland is in the Cod War with the Brits (which consisted of the tug boat Thor sailing out to confront the RN frigates defending the cod boats against the Icelandic assault (throwing potatoes at the RN sailors (I AM NOT MAKING ANY OF THIS UP))). Anyway, Iceland threatens to turn the Kef base over to the Bolshies if they don’t get the Cod grounds. Nixon capitulates.

FF to financial collapse, and Iceland in hock to Brits, who have veto over Iceland entry into EU. There was a meeting in Reyk with a bunch of finance types in which Iceland tried to hardball repayment. One of the reps was a Russkie, and Iceland rep told U.S. rep in presence of Russkie that if they did not get relief they would turn Kef over to Bolshies. Russian rep looked at Iceland rep and replied that Russia had no interest in the air base at Keflavik. The Cold War actually ended that day, regardless of what history says.

It’s still going on, I saw an article about a month ago about Iceland trying to encourage Chinese tourism, and hinting that the base might pass to Chinese control.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive