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Brain chemistry and our financial behaviour

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Physiological reactions: gaining, losing and spending money triggers responses in our brain (Photograph courtesy of Pixabay)

Money is a consistent, persistent, necessary, and an all-too-often consuming pattern of litany in our lives.

It has existed as a medium of exchange with us, between us, around us in various formats, in various assigned values since the beginning of mankind.

It impacts just about every facet of society: nations, governments, communities, families, individuals.

It is taken for granted in everyday commerce, used for stunning acts of kindness, meteoric displays of finance acquisition and horrific acts of criminality, revenge, and betrayal.

Money and finance are so incredibly vital to civilisation that it is a constant feature in every medium – factually or opined on by every real or pretender expert.

Quite frankly, continual exposure (generally delivered by loud talking heads) to financial dealings can wear us to exhaustion while we worry about the mundane particulars of paying our bills, earnings and promotions, education, lifestyles, funding for the future and on and on.

But, we have to pay attention anyway. We can’t exist, or barely so, without money.

Then, we also have to mentally negotiate our financial way through and around our relationships of love, family, work, business, community. Consider this story:

“He came from a very large close-knit family. Grown up, the family, now greatly expanded, would rent a hall to celebrate the holidays together. He noted that it became an anticipated hallmark tradition for a couple of decades. The last celebration, however, revealed obvious and significant financial differences among the now middle-aged siblings. Old grievances, envy and animosity fuelled by alcohol, turned the holiday spirit into physical confrontations completely severing the harmony that the family had once embraced.”

We can be so different when it comes to how we see ourselves, how secure we feel in our identity, and how we manage our finances, even when we are all derived from the same family.

Were those differences always there in our personalities, and are they just amplified in relationship settings?

Finance behavioural experts, physiologists, psychologists, and more have sought to explain our reaction to, our use of, or our management and/or exploitation of money for centuries.

While we now do have a better understanding of how we can manage money, but the why we do what we do with money?

I’m not sure we know any more than we did then.

What causes the impulsive purchases, the hiding of them to avoid disapproval by a partner, the endless gambling due to allure of getting rich, the secret hoarding of money for security, the control of money over another for power, are all traits that are still not well understood.

Physiologically, we almost cannot help our reactions.

The use of money and what it does for us triggers pure physiological reactions in our brain.

According to health and wellbeing websites: when we spend money, various involuntary physiological reactions occur in the brain.

These reactions involve several regions and neurotransmitter systems that influence our emotions, motivation, and decision-making.

Reward circuitry activation

Our brain's reward circuitry, primarily involving the mesolimbic (sometimes called the reward) dopamine pathway, plays a crucial role in the pleasure and motivation associated with spending money.

When we make a purchase, the anticipation and actual act of buying can trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical in our brain that is responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, a sense of satisfaction, motivation and reinforces that behaviour.

Emotion regulation

Spending money can also have an impact on our emotional state.

Our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and emotional regulation, plays a role in evaluating the value of purchases and modulating emotional responses.

Depending on the individual and the context, spending money can lead to positive emotions like joy, excitement, or satisfaction, or negative emotions like guilt, regret, or anxiety.

Cognitive appraisal

Our brain's cognitive processes are also engaged when we spend money.

The anterior cingulate cortex and the insula are involved in assessing the value of purchases, comparing options, and evaluating trade-offs.

These regions help us make decisions about whether a purchase is worth the cost and provide feedback on the perceived value and satisfaction derived from spending money.

Self-identity and social influence

Our brain's reward and decision-making systems are also influenced by our self-identity and social factors.

Various brain regions are involved in self-referential processing and can be activated when we make purchases that align with our self-image or when we conform to social norms and expectations related to spending habits.

Stress and anxiety

In some cases, spending money can trigger stress or anxiety-related responses in the brain.

The amygdala, which plays a role in emotional processing and fear response, may become activated when we encounter financial uncertainty or experience buyer's remorse.

This activation can contribute to feelings of stress or anxiety associated with spending money.

It's important to note that individual reactions to spending money can vary, and factors like personal financial situation, beliefs, and cultural influences can further shape the physiological response in the brain.

The top source of anxiety is money, followed closely by work and the economy while stress level of Americans is rising rapidly in 2022, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Will any of these observations change how we individually, or collectively handle the stress that accompanies managing our finances?

Possibly not, but even a little illumination to understand how and why we are affected by money, while working on our self-worth affirmation and our human capital that all the money in the world cannot buy – is the worthwhile goal towards personal self-fulfillment.

Money cannot buy personal self-esteem, or happiness – it is how we manage it that reinforces positive outcomes for us.

It is what it is – only a medium of exchange to purchase what we need in a fully functioning satisfactory life.

Next: part three, family, work and business relationships

Martha Harris Myron is a native Bermuda islander with US connections, Author, financial columnist, YouTube creator of The Bermuda Island Financial Literacy Perspectives Channel and a retired qualified international financial planner. Contact: martha.myron@gmail.com

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Published June 10, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated June 10, 2023 at 7:10 am)

Brain chemistry and our financial behaviour

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