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Why do the financial “experts” make decisions that are so removed from human values? Part of the reason may be that they spend too much of their time thinking about money.

Filthy Lucre
The process of thinking too much about money causes impairment of mental and emotional functions.  This proven effect, known as Lucraphrenia, is relatively weak in any given instance and can be overcome by awareness and prevention, but when it is untreated over years or decades, the effects can accumulate into a serious syndrome.

Since many of those who rise to the top of the caterpillar pillar of finance do so by dint of endless study of money, by the time they arrive at their exalted station, they have lost much of their capacity to understand the real purpose of the numbers they know in so much detail.

Let’s start with the experimental evidence – it’s clear.  A series of experiments conducted by Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs at University of Minnesota showed that exposure to images of money caused people to be less helpful to others:

First we exposed the subjects to concepts of money in very subtle ways. For example, we would have some Monopoly money on the table on which they were working, or we would have them do a word task that involved unscrambling words that made up logical phrases, and sometimes those phrases related to money. Then we gave subjects the opportunity to help someone else … Subjects who were reminded of money were less helpful than subjects not reminded of money.
In addition, people exposed to images of money were less likely to ask for help, less likely to be concerned when socially isolated, and even less sensitive to physical pain.

It’s intuitively obvious why.  Money often represents a callous accounting of a person’s worth, and if your (assets + credit) at any given moment doesn’t match even momentary needs, you’re sunk.  The growing abstractness of money, as numbers stored on a computer, and the explosive growth of zero-sum transactions, reinforces this.  

The Cost
If such effects can be measured based only on short term exposure to images of money (and sometimes not even real money), then imagine the effect of spending a working lifetime focused on the topic.

There are exceptions, of course.  Take for example Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman.  But in this case the exception may even help prove the  rule.  Krugman’s greatness is not defined by his adroitness with numbers (although he’s got that), but rather by his ability to see past the numbers to the greater purpose of money, and of an economy.

Many people do manage to work daily with money and escape mostly unscathed.  The harmful effects are partly mitigated by observing good results that you can create for actual fellow humans.  And, there are some wonderful companies who, perhaps recognizing their duty to offset the health effects of dealing with money, base their success of creating a positive community for workers and customers alike.

The negative effect is strongest when the financial environment is abstract, not connected directly with any actual useful thing, and it is magnified when the transactions are zero sum: for you to win, somebody else has to lose.

For every Paul Krugman, there are thousands of financial wizards who have succumbed to the Incestuous Amplification of numbers-and-greed economics.  These people, sadly, drive much of the activity in our contemporary economy.

There are many reasons why people in the finance industry lose their compass.  Company culture, the competing pressures to get “ahead”.  But another factor may simply be simply the subject matter itself: If you work with money all day and don’t connect it with useful acts or goods, then its inherent coldness will seep into your soul.

Climbing to Success
This suggests some measures that we should take as a country to improve national-level financial decisions.  Key boards, such as the federal reserve, should include members of non-financial professions, such as philosophy and art.  If the “experienced” financial people need to take a bit of time to “explain“ to the new board members why a given financial maneuver serves the national interest, that time could be one of the best investments that we ever make.

When evaluating consumer protection measures, our government should consider not only the potential for overt fraud, but also the soul-destroying effect on consumers of having to navigate a maze of terms and conditions at every turn to determine whether they are being taken to the cleaners.  Every time you have to decipher the terms of a purchase or loan agreement, it creates an incremental hardening in the arteries of your soul.

The effect is not limited to those with a lot of money.  In fact, I suspect that the ill effect may be magnified for people who have little money, but are caught in complex transactions or severe financial pressure.  At the very moment when they need community the most, the need to focus on money could cause such people to become less able to reach out.

At an individual level, there are important measures you can take to lessen your exposure to monetary complexity and thus protect your mental health.  This one is tough.  In shark-infested waters, you can’t just blissfully swim.  Financial literacy, and related numeracy, are critically important life skills.

Limit exposure as much as you can
So, while still protecting yourself in a world where money is ubiquitous, the useful thing is to identify where you can simplify your transactions.  If you are able to have investments, you can buy a broad fund instead of tracking individual stocks.  To align your goals with good results in the world, you can invest in a socially responsible fund that is divested of fossil fuels.  If you are tempted to buy some kind of timeshare or other complex deal – just don’t (and beware the related condition of affluenza).

After you engage in a particularly complex financial transaction, wash your hands thoroughly, find a loved one nearby, and give them a hug.  If no loved ones are handy, take a moment for another type of life-affirming act, preferably of kindness.  It is important to counteract the corrosive effect before it seeps too deeply into you.

Regular detox is helpful, several times a week if possible.  Plan for blocks of several waking hours where you have no interaction with money.  If, with some advance planning, you can go for a full day or more (camping, anyone?), that’s very special.

So, if you have read this far, you may be wondering …. Thinking about, the process of thinking about, money, is that harmful?  

If so, I am sorry.  But perhaps it could work as a vaccine - if reading this helps you to decide to spend a finance-free afternoon, or even a whole day, then reading this will provide a good return on investment.  Oops.

As with most chronically harmful effects, the most important thing is awareness.  Know that the effect is happening, and that as a conscious and caring person, you can overcome Lucraphrenia, in yourself, your friends, and loved ones.

UPDATE Oct 5, 2013: Edited from the original "Lucrazema" to "Lucraphrenia"

Originally posted to James Wells on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 10:13 PM PST.

Also republished by Changing the Scrip and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank You ... (6+ / 0-)

    Re-posted to Changing the Scrip.


    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 10:58:45 PM PST

  •  it's the capitalist's drug (9+ / 0-)

    the more you got, the more you want it. What's most insidious, especially in the US of A, is that those who don't have it want it so bad that they admire the ones who've got piles of it. It's the perfect script for the fat cats to keep getting fatter without repercussions, as long as they keep dangling the American Dream fantasy that any of us may be next and most of us want to be next.

    If you're in the Bay Area, come to the Forward on Climate Rally in SF on Sunday Feb 17

    by citisven on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 11:14:22 PM PST

    •  I can't claim to be immune to the drug (10+ / 0-)

      so there's a confessional element in there.

      But there's another component, it's not just want.  I was talking with some people at a local "Democracy Cafe" event last week about motivations to accumulate - and a huge one is fear.  Fear of need, or unexpected medical expense, or of social failure due to lack of resources.

      •  In modern society ... (7+ / 0-)

        incredibly hard to avoid this 'drug'. Such a huge share of what we do has a price tag directly on / related to it.  I find it hard to believe that there are many who are 'immune'.  The extent to which this damages society and social interactions might be hard to exaggerate.

        And, even in societies/systems where the specific currency ($, Lira, Pound, etc ...) might be less relevant, other 'power' issues come into the equation as seriously. (Getting into the right line, in the Soviet Union, to be able to buy shoes ...)

        Re the negative implications of the 'fear', I discussed my father-in-law's brain cancer with this in mind -- difference between French and U.S. systems.  Cancer on the Brain … and a perspective on healthcare

        PS: Thank you for this diary and giving me a term/intellectual construct for something that I've been 'aware of' but had not considered in this way. Lucrazema ... not quite yet in the medical textbooks but headed there?

        Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

        by A Siegel on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 03:56:05 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Fear Factor (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          citisven, A Siegel, linkage

          I think that fear relating to money is a significant mental health issue, especially as evaluated over a population.  Thanks for the reference to your column, which is right on target.

          There may be other serious effects - for instance for people who are not financially well off but are caught in a web of complex transactions to their disadvantage, the related exposure to financial complexity could reduce their ability to fully consider their options - at the moment they may need their community most, the effects cited in the study could stunt their ability to call on community for help.

    •  It is an obsession or can become an obsession, (4+ / 0-)

      but I don't think it's the acquisition of money (representing capital assets), but rather the accumulation of money which is the problem. Accumulation results in hoarding and sequestration, but I don't think that's the object. I think it's the accumulation that is liable to becoming obsessive/compulsive. So, the quantity of the accumulant doesn't shut the behavior off. There is no enough. It's even possible that money just happens to be a really convenient accumulant, especially now that it can be represented by electronic blips. Think, for comparison, of endlessly accumulating acorns. It can't be done. There are natural limits of acorns and space to put them.
      Monetary units are infinite and take up almost no room.

      We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

      by hannah on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 01:51:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Stolen for Hannah Blog (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, linkage, Icicle68

    I might add that I've been thinking about money for years and have not noticed an increased interest in having it. But then, I am not an accumulator. I acquire things and I have things, but they have to be useful or out they go. If I am mildly obsessive, it's about getting rid of stuff, but not to the dump. Uselessness in things is inherently offensive. Which means I can still appreciate the souvenirs people pick up on vacations to remind them where they were and, presumably, had a good time.
    Indeed, I have recently argued that money is nothing but an aide memoire, a tangible or visible reminder of what we owe to someone else. And that's why, I go on to speculate, our friends, the Cons, are so antagonistic towards money. They do not want to owe anyone anything and certainly don't want to be reminded that they do, even though, if they happen to be politicians, they've actually been hired to manage our public debts.
    I've speculated that the Cons are obsessed with accumulating and not wanting to let go. However, just this morning it occurred to me that perhaps the accumulation is a consequence of not knowing how to process or let go of what they've got -- like that bullfrog sitting on the bank with a swallow in its mouth. In fact, I was wondering if mathematicians are concerned with what would happen if there were no function sign between A and B on the left side of an equation.
    I was led to that question by my hypothesis or observation that the Cons operate by indirection or triangulation or ulterior motivation. If one were to draw a picture of the flow of energy to do anything, it wouldn't be from A to B, but rather a nudge from A to C to impact B -- triangulation, like on a pool table. And then it occurred to me that perhaps the action between A and B is actually unknown, like the mysterious spirit in the Holy Trinity, which has never struck me as particularly mysterious. Agency is not mysterious, when you come to (can) think of it. But, what if a brain has no awareness of agency? What if not just the function key, but the concept of function is missing? What if there were no awareness of the plus, minus, division or multiplication sign between A and B?  What comes after the equal sign would make no sense. There would be no equal. There would be no equality.
    So, maybe it's just the math. What's missing in the binary brain is the function. That's the missing link. Does that make any sense to a person that's not math-challenged like me?

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 02:34:41 AM PST

  •  Ps ... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bisbonian, James Wells, linkage, indres

    very rarely hotlist ... did so with this.  Thanks.

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 03:56:46 AM PST

  •  Lots of thought provoking concepts here. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, hazey

    Money = power in a lot of people's minds.  Acquire it and you gain influence.  There is a reason why they say money is the root of all evil and if you want to get to the root of any problem you should follow the money.  That is why the fossil free movement that has launched has the potential of being so effective with climate change.  

    How each of us as consumers spend and direct our money will in large part determine our energy direction.   We vote every day when we purchase.  In climate terms it's much more impactful than the ballot box.  It is a "beyond politics" strategy.  In light of the failure of filibuster reform and the subsequent obstruction our political system will continue to encounter we certainly need to think beyond politics with regard to our climate.  

    If we really want to straighten out all this crap we really need to think about shit - Holy Shit.

    by John Crapper on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 07:05:38 AM PST

  •  What do they call it for thinking too much for (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, John Crapper, hazey

    the lack of it ..I think depression and stress still have that corner marketed.
    worrying about the big money is one illness I will never suffer from.   Worrying about money to last till another blow out on the car... I could stop breathing over.

    We the People have to make a difference and the Change.....Just do it ! Be part of helping us build a veteran community online. United Veterans of America

    by Vetwife on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 08:02:19 AM PST

  •  at end of 'series experiments' interview (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells

    the discussion rests on irrational decision making:

    rational and irrational decision making  models

    Behind Reagan the Right convinced white middle and working class men their interests lay with rich plutocrats, that the real victims in America were Ayn Rand’s supermen whose economic dynamism needed to be “unchained.” ~ Robert Parry

    by anyname on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 08:03:41 AM PST

  •  Funny, I'd never thought of this. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, John Crapper, hazey

    My personal experience is, the more I spread money around, the more comes to me.

    Of course, my professional life isn't concentrated on money, which may be a factor.

    I'm hotlisting this, so I can take my time thinking about it.

    Strength and dignity are her clothing, she rejoices at the days to come; She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue.

    by loggersbrat on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 08:04:57 AM PST

  •  poor people also think about money a lot (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Constantine, hazey, splashy

    Money - or lack thereof - pretty much dictates everything I do and far more often don't do.  I don't ask myself who I am and what I want, I ask myself "What can I afford?"  I measure my savings not in terms of a down payment on a house or going on an adventure; I measure it in terms of how long I could survive without a job.

    Something's wrong when the bad guys are the utopian ones.

    by Visceral on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 11:18:10 AM PST

  •  I worked in Finance for many years. (4+ / 0-)

    Between my education, teaching, and industry, I spent 30 focused on money. One of the greatest pleasures was helping my clients give money to non-profit organizations. Another was to talk to my students about money as a tool, not something to get emotionally wound up in if possible. I taught students about ethics in financial management, and I lived that in my professional career.

    Generally, the people I worked with, both as co-workers and as clients, were not sickened the way you speak of. But it may be an issue for those in other rungs of the hierarchy.

    Thanks. Interesting, though from my own experience I don't necessarily agree.

    •  What don't you agree with? (0+ / 0-)

      I'm curious, as this sounds like science to me, a finding of fact. Do you disagree that Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs found what she found, or are you disagreeing with the implications?

      If you disagree with that Dr. Vohs found what she says she found, are you suggesting she lied, or performed the experiment in error?

      The wonderful thing about science is that true things are true, and can be uncovered using the scientific method, regardless of how you or anyone else feel about them.

    •  A survivor! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Melanie in IA, hazey, splashy

      It looks like you found precisely the prescription to ward off any ill effects - connecting money to real benefit for people.

      In a practical sense, I believe that this effect manifests most notably in environments where the money is disconnected from value and becomes its own end.

      •  I think that is true. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        James Wells, hazey, splashy

        If "money" really is presented simply as points on the scoreboard, more is better no matter what. (except in golf...)  I think there are a lot of environments where it is exactly that.

        In my role as an investment manager, however, the money was directly connected to the individual or family, or the non-profit cause when I worked with those organizations. I especially loved working with the non-profits, though they were very challenging in some ways. The board members and trustees were diligent stewards of their organizations' funds, because only if there was MORE could they buy more wheelchair ramps, or pay for camp for more kids, or put more at-risk women in shelters. The intended outcomes were very tangible, not simply marks on a paper.

        Thanks. Again, I found it very interesting.

      •  In other words, the money is a score (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        James Wells

        As is keeping score on how you are doing compared to others.

        Then, all you can think about is getting that score up, not about any impact on your life or others lives.

        Women create the entire labor force. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sympathy is the strongest instinct in human nature. - Charles Darwin

        by splashy on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 10:48:06 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  If you spend all day on it (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells, splashy

    I've always been skeptical about jobs about money. It's one thing if you job involves doing something for money, but I figured that if I spent 8-12 hours a day, every day, not doing anything but working with money in exchange for money, this would tend to distort my thinking.

    That said, I think that liberals tend to have some kind of fear or discomfort associated with money, and it gets them into trouble when it probably should. Why are so many liberal non-profits and advocacy groups paying terrible wages as though that were "normal"? Why are we ceding a lot of high paying jobs to conservatives, when we're just as capable and qualified?

  •  I wonder if it's money, math or both (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells

    That causes the psychological effects mentioned. Many people who do non-money related jobs that involve a lot of mathematics, like engineering or hard science, have issues with social interaction.  That's where the perception of the "geeky" scientist comes from.  The way regularly doing math in those contexts changes a person isn't necessarily bad nor does it cause them to dehumanize others, although it may make it harder to read emotions.

    Personally I've noticed that doing math has a calming effect similar to that of meditation because of the focus it requires.

    I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

    by Futuristic Dreamer on Sat Feb 02, 2013 at 08:48:47 AM PST

  •  Hmmmm... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells

    I was just thinking about how Beatrice Potter's parents forbide her marriage to a young man who was engaged in 'commerce' because it was too lowly an occupation for someone in her aristocratic family.  

    Likewise the elaborate social game that goes one, where people are not supposed to talk about money, but everyone is engaged in trying to figure out each other's net worth by how each other dresses, consumes food, has money for sports, habitates,educates, and donates.  

     Now it is so much faster to google the person, look at their neighborhood (or their very home itself and an estimate of its value) on Zillow, and hack into their bank statements to know about them, so you can catagorize them as being useful or not, and move on.  

    Money as myth, metaphore, symbol; value worked out in our brains rather than experienced with our senses.

  •  Nowhere is this disease more prevalent than (0+ / 0-)

    the good old United States of America.

  •  Such a disease is a reflection of poor character. (0+ / 0-)
  •  Thanks all! I'm off to go count my money ... (0+ / 0-)

    Just kidding!  We had a great beach day today here in the sunny Pacific Northwest, with classic PNW beachwear (parka, rubber boots, hood), collecting our classic PNW tans (a few square inches from chin to forehead).

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