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Don’t Let This Survival Instinct Derail Your Finances

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Last year, I began fostering animals for my local shelter. It’s been incredible to have kittens and puppies around the house, watching them experience things for the first time and negotiate their role in the litter or pack. What I didn’t expect was that these cuties were going to show up with all kinds of fun conditions like worms, fleas, and conjunctivitis. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say, I’ve made more than a couple of impromptu trips to the shelter’s veterinarian.

At the end of one of these vet visits, the shelter sent me home with a large bag of kitten chow that the vet was kind enough to help me carry to my car. We walked out to the parking lot and I pointed toward my Audi and said, “that’s mine.” He slightly raised his eyebrow and frowned. I wasn’t sure what it meant, maybe nothing, but it seemed like a reaction to finding out what I drive. I clicked the remote to open the trunk and then he said something like “oh, I don’t have anything fancy like that on my car.”

If the eyebrow face hadn’t convinced me, the tone of his comment made it clear that there was at least a bit of judgment happening. I didn’t know anything about his financial situation, nor had I given it any thought, but once he highlighted the distinction between our cars, I became very aware that maybe I had more than he did. I suddenly felt different, almost embarrassed and apologetic, not just for my car, but the fact that I could afford it and perhaps he couldn’t.

I responded with an attempt at a self-deprecating joke to reassure him that I was down-to-earth. In that moment, all I wanted was for him to think we were the same. I wanted to convince him I wasn’t snobby or superficial or any of the other negative things he might be thinking about me.

After we parted ways, I thought about why a seemingly harmless statement by an acquaintance would bother me the way it did. After all, it’s not that unusual to make judgments about people based on their money and possessions; we all do it. We look at the home a person lives in, the car she drives, the clothes she wears, and we assess the category of people to which she belongs. We make assumptions about whether she can relate to our lives; we decide if she is “one of us.” This all feels fine when we are judging others but when we are the ones being evaluated for sameness, it can stir up all kinds of negative emotions.

It triggers the fear all humans share about being labeled as different and separate. This response is an evolutionary hold-over that subconsciously tells us that without the acceptance and support of other people, we won’t survive. That instinct was born out of truth; at points in our history, we couldn’t survive if we were ostracized from our tribe. The price of rejection (death) couldn’t have been higher.

Such hard-wired instincts haven’t disappeared even if the stakes of rejection are lower than they once were. The fear of not fitting in still greatly influences the decisions we make. It’s not just teenagers who follow their friends off the Brooklyn Bridge. We adults frequently make less-than-optimal decisions to stay in the good graces of our peers.

Take, for example, a concept with which we are all familiar: keeping up with the Joneses. Who hasn’t experienced the urge to fix up our house, makeover our wardrobe, go on an extravagant trip or give our kids the hottest toy right after someone in our lives did the same? That urge is telling us we need to use money to gain acceptance and satisfy our instinctual desire to remain a member of our tribe. Even if it puts us in a worse spot financially, we often willingly pour money into making sure we fit in with those around us. Though it might leave us overspent, in debt, behind on saving for our goals or worse, we do it because those consequences feel like less of a threat than being rejected by our peers.

Interestingly, we don’t always adjust our behavior to appear to have more money. If our tribe happens to be more affluent, we’ll mimic their behavior. But if our tribe has less, we are just as likely to do things to fit in with their socio-economic group.

Consider a professional athlete who is catapulted to affluence after years growing up with nothing. He suddenly, and publicly, becomes the only person in his tribe with money. On one hand, it may feel great to achieve success; on the other hand, his success comes with the unpleasant realization that he is now different than everyone else in his life. To cope with it, he might spend loads of money to bring his friends and family along with him so they, too, can share in his experience. Or perhaps, he might spend money faster than he can make it, subconsciously wanting to get rid of it so he can go back to normal.

Different social groups have different expectations about how we use our money, everything from what kind of education we provide our kids to how much help we give to family or charity. Our susceptibility to being influenced by these norms is correlated with how important the group is in our lives. The more catastrophic rejection from the group would be, the more likely we are to conform to its behavior even if it doesn’t align with our own needs and values. I took on self-doubt about a car purchase over the opinion of someone I hardly know. Had it been a close family member or friend, or worse an entire group of people in my life, I may have responded with a change in behavior that only served to subdue my fear of rejection, not improve my quality of life.

We can move away from fear-driven decisions by spending time exploring what we believe about money, examining how our beliefs originated and noticing how we feel when we take certain actions. Feeling pressured, conflicted, fearful or resentful are good indicators that we aren’t entirely on board with our decision and that it might be coming from the pressure to belong.

Just like other animals, we are always negotiating our place in the pack. The key to making financial decisions that support our individual lives is knowing when to apply the pack mentality and when to let it go.

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