This past Saturday, I walked by the storefront of a snazzy high-end furniture retailer that boasts stores across North America and trades on the New York Stock Exchange. On the glass store window, written in large font, was the marketing pitch:
‘WHAT YOU WANT. WHEN YOU WANT. SAVINGS ON EVERYTHING. EVERY DAY.’
Perfect, I thought, on this particular window the universe has delivered to me the subject of my next blog posting, channeled through a ringside announcer’s American southern drawl:
IN ONE CORNER … wearing blue shorts and sporting a smart hairdo … Willpower and Rational EGO
IN THE OTHER CORNER … parading in red shorts and unruly mane, Impulsivity and Infantile ID.
Learning from Sigmund
Circa 1920s. Sigmund Freud, famed psychoanalyst, coined the term ‘Pleasure Principle’, i.e., instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
Want, Want, Want. The Pleasure Principle presumes that, in infancy and early childhood, we seek immediate gratification of needs (such as hunger, thirst and warmth) and wants (playing electronic games, eating more ice cream, pushing to be first in line). In adolescence and beyond, the human animal adds sex and, some would argue, material consumption to ID’s most wanted list. Presto! satisfaction is the consuming selfish yearning. We humans want what we want when we want it. Consequences be damned.
Freud also contended that instinctual desire may be wrestled to the ground. How so? By thinking about costs and benefits of our actions. Then, proceeding to act responsibly.
Such behavior would be reflective of a Mature person, says Freud, one whose Ego is subdued by the Reality Principle. i.e., delaying gratification yet still seeking and finding pleasure.
Freudology defines ID as the primitive, infantile, instinctive component of personality; the impulsive, chaotic, unreasonable, unconscious part of our psyche that responds directly and immediately to instincts.
EGO develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic ID and the external real world. EGO is responsible for thoughtful decision-making, for working out realistic ways of satisfying ID’s demands. In this regard, EGO considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules, in deciding how to behave; often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences.
Sigmund himself said that EGO is ‘like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.’
Mischel and the Marshmallow
Circa 1960s. Stanford psychology professor, Walter Mischel, undertakes experiments (later known as the Marshmallow Experiment) involving Nursery school children aged 4 to 6.
The Set Up. Each child is led into a private room by a member of Mischel’s research team. The child sits in a chair in front of a table upon which lay one treat, being a marshmallow, pretzel or cookie.
The Deal. Researcher tells the child he will leave the room for about 15 minutes. During this time, the child may choose to eat the treat. The child is told that, if they can wait until the researcher returns, they will be given two treats instead of one.
Results. The children fell into three camps.
- Impulsive Izzys, first camp. These little critters wolfed down the treat within seconds of the researcher leaving the room.
- Piggly Wigglys, second camp, wiggled, squirmed and bounced about for a few minutes trying to contain themselves before caving to temptation.
- Gritty Gooses, third and smallest camp, comprising about 25% of the children, patiently waited to collect their two treats.
Years Later. During the five decades after the original experiments, follow up studies were carried out on some of these same children. The results?
Get this: Gritty Gooses far outperformed Impulsive Izzys and Piggly Wigglys. Those who were able to delay gratification for longer periods of time achieved higher academic results, had more successful careers, earned more money, were healthier, happier, better managed stress and frustration, and were less likely to be obese or suffer from substance abuse.
You’re So Hot! (and you may want to turn down the temperature)
Is it possible for Impulsive Izzy or Piggly Wiggly to switch camps, and join the Gritty Gooses? Of course it is but not without working to make it happen. And that work should first concentrate on understanding our mental processes.
Simply put, two different neurological systems govern our behavior. The limbic system (i.e., Hot / Pleasure focused), is responsible for our emotional responses, pain, appetites and sexual impulses. Impulsive and feverish, the hot system implores the kids to eat the treat, now, now, NOW (the physiological embodiment of ID)!
The ‘Cool System’ is located in the Prefrontal Cortex, an area of the brain controlling cognitive, complex and reflective thought (corresponding to strategic EGO). Chilled and contemplative, the Cool System counsels patience, tactical thinking, and consideration of future rewards such as when Gritty Goose obtained two treats instead of one.
Under stress, the Hot System often overwhelms the Cool System. The outcome being hasty, emotion based decisions that may satisfy our present self but damage our future self.
Says Professor Mischel, ‘the hot system is great when you’re starving in the wild and looking for food. It’s not good when you’re doing retirement planning.’
The Secret to Wealth: A Sexy and Smart Pre-Frontal Cortex
Financial success is largely a psychological game. And the person with little or no debt, growing savings, increasing financial security and, eventually, a well-padded retirement account, sports a generous prefrontal cortex.
Across all cultures, its the Gritty Goose who exhibits self-control, will power, ability to resist siren calls, and wisdom to understand likely consequences flowing from actions. Free from an overheated limbic system, good, smart, rational decisions are consistently made, thereby positively affecting overall life success.
‘Well’, says Hedonist Harry, ‘I’m not a Cool Cat square who surfs the Reality Principle. Not me, man. I’m all about living life here and now, you know, getting what I want and buying what I want today, because you never know what will happen tomorrow and, besides, how can I resist when they’re practically giving stuff away with these low interest rates.’
Okay Harry, I’m with you on the maximizing life bit. Still, we BuddhaMoney folks look at life a bit differently.
We go for a healthy serving of BALANCE when it comes to the life equation. What this means is that we consider our present and future (i.e., self, family, community) when making decisions. In doing so, we live within our financial means, minimize or avoid tapping into credit and paying interest, eliminate impulse purchases, save and invest money knowing that time marches forward and the day will come when we want to stop working or slow it down, suppress gambling instincts, buy fewer toys, be content with what we have and not drool over the newest and latest and greatest updated version of Stuff.
And what happens? We achieve bigger financial account balances AND we achieve the wealth of contentment through lower expenses, greater assets, reduced stress, and a perspective that says, ‘Stuff really isn’t all that important; giving back to my family, friends, and community is what makes my heart smile’. Oh, and not being in debt, wow, talk about a sense of freedom.
The thing is, Harry, Cool Cat digs Pleasure as much as anyone but knows enough not to act without awareness of consequences, financial and otherwise.