I have been teaching a PhD class in Positive Psychology for the last five years but this year I was in for a surprising insight on my own beliefs about money. Tanvi, a doctoral student in marketing who has taken the course as an elective this year, conducted a short exercise for the rest of the class on the topic of the associations we have about money in our brains. When I took part in the exercise I was shocked to realize that the themes that came up as my primary associations were ‘greed’, ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’. Far from being positive, I was carrying in my head a plethora of dark, fearful and apologetic beliefs regarding money.
One of the first things I learnt during my own doctoral training was that correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things seem to have occurred together a number of times it does not mean that one has led to another. Yet we make this mistake of assuming causality (through observations of correlation) over and over again. We make this mistake when we conduct research and draw scientific conclusions AND we make this mistake when we draw conclusions in our heads about how the world functions (ie when we create our internal belief systems). What is trickier about the conclusions in our heads however is that unlike the conclusions in scientific journals we do not bring these up for re-examination or investigation often enough.
The insight from the exercise that Tanvi made us do in class was a strong wake up call for me. I decided to do some internal investigation into why and how I might have formed these strong negative associations with money. My learning so far has been that it has mostly been a case of mistaking correlation for causality. I had observed instances of greed around me and also observed that there was often something that involved money in those situations. This was an observation of correlation but in my head I assumed a belief of causality which ran something like, ‘money causes people to become greedy’.
The simplest way to question this belief (or any belief) is to ask different questions around the conclusion.
- Can I be absolutely sure that it is the money that caused the greed? What if something else caused the greed and money was just another variable standing there benignly?
- Could there be alternate explanations for the observed causality? Could greed be an inherent characteristic of some people who then exhibit it in multiple ways (greed with money being just one of the possible ways)?
- Could there be another factor that is leading to greed (perhaps something like insecurity, or separation) and could the greedy handling of money just be a more visible phenomenon than the underlying greed itself ?
- Could my own observation of the instances (data) I used to draw my conclusion have been biased? A classic case of confirmation bias might have been at play here, where because I already believed that money makes people greedy I had been paying more attention to incidents where money and greed co-occurred than instances when they did not?
There are endless questions one can ask around each belief but I have found that often just a 10 minute internal inquiry (like the above one) into the validity of our own beliefs is enough to at-least motivate us to step back from vehemently insisting that our belief is truly representative of reality. This then opens us up to the next step which can be to consciously look for possible evidences of data that will disconfirm our original belief.
In the case of the above example, I will need to look around to see if I can find examples of situations and people where there is a demonstration of kindness and generosity that co-exists with money. If I can find some of these then my brain will find it increasingly difficult to hold on to the premise that money necessarily causes greed. Over time I can do this kind of an exercise and question every belief that I hold about money.
Researchers in the field of psychology have been studying the correlates of money with psychological well being. Much of this research seems to suggest that there might be an inverse relationship between materialistic values (focusing on money) and well being. However, a closer investigation of the findings in this stream of research shows that it is not money goals by themselves that are related to reduced levels of psychological well-being but rather the ‘centrality’ of money goals. In other words the negative effects of focussing on money occurs only in cases where people place financial aspirations ahead of their other interests and aspirations. This interpretation of the results can have a very different implication. What if the decreased psychological well being is not because of the focus on money but because of the relative lack of focus on other important goals and values?
I recently saw a talk in which the speaker (Rikka Zimmerman) compared money to a tree. Two weeks ago this talk would have sounded like blasphemy for me. I adore trees and have been worshiping them as one of Nature’s highest expressions of life and I’ve already told you about the far from positive associations of money I used to hold in my head. Rikka however argues in her talk that money by itself has no polarity of good or bad. Money is a neutral concept unless associate it with various attributions and conclusions. Money is just paper, she proposes and paper comes from trees. Rikka invites us to look at money, just like we look at trees (through a frame that has no polarity in it).
For me the journey of questioning my beliefs about money has just begun. For the last two weeks I have been inquiring into various judgements and conclusions I have drawn about money and several of these have not withstood even the most basic investigation. I am finding that many of my views about money have been fairly baseless and when I have discovered a base it has mostly turned out to be a case of mistaking correlation with causality.
So What are YOUR own beliefs about money? Why might it be useful to challenge some of them? Might there be some use in unravelling and understanding your own personal ideas about money? Might a more liberal or generous (no pun intended) idea of money allow you to work with more ease and create greater impact in your own lives and that of others?
I am curious to know!
If the idea of working with your beliefs excites you then I invite you to watch a series of videos I have made titled ‘Managing Our Inner Worlds’. There are 14 videos in this series (of an academic sort) and you can watch them for free on IIMB KITE youtube channel. The videos are also listed in sequence with brief summaries on my webpage at this link https://craftingourlives.com/managing-our-inner-worlds/