“The easiest guardrail to install is a professional advisor who manages your money. When you have a dopamine-fuelled rush to do something with your money, the best first step is a call to your financial planner or advisor.”
—Dr. Elesa Zehndorfer
There are moments in your life when you realize money can indeed buy happiness. It’s the joy you feel when you get the unexpected bonus at work. Or the cash in your hand when you sell a car. Or the pleasure when a stock you took a risk on quickly doubles or triples in value.
Money delivers a rush.
The way you feel at those times is a physiological response to money. That’s because when we think about money, it can exert a neurological effect on our brains so seductive that it literally matches what happens to our bodies when we think about love or sex—some of our most primal of urges. It’s no wonder, then, that research from behavioral economists and neuroscientists confirms it can be difficult to remain rational when it comes to our investing behavior. We are seeking that rush, time and time again.
My field of study, physiology, sheds fascinating light on how the body deals with these seductive effects. Let’s investigate why evolution hardwires us to react emotionally rather than rationally when it comes to money, and how we, as investors, can tame our inner beast and resist the allure of quick profits from the next cryptocurrency.1
The Money Effect
From a physiological perspective, when we think about money, it activates the same pathways in our brain that are activated when we think about love or sex.
The Desire of Desire
Our thoughts and feelings about money likely start when we’re children and find a quarter on the sidewalk, and it continues today when we see an investment unexpectedly increase in value. The rush is particularly alluring, especially when investors believe there’s more of it to be made quickly and easily—like during the dot com run-up 20 years ago, or cryptocurrency today.
Money has been referred to as the “desire of desire”.2 From a physiological perspective, a craving or longing for money activates the exact pathways that are stimulated when we think about or engage with the first flush of love or sex.
Potentially addictive, it powerfully clouds our rational decision-making capacities, flooding our brains with dopamine.2 When this happens, we can be tempted to ditch our well-planned, long-term strategy in hopes of making a quick gain.
When we think about money, we experience a stimulating, pleasurable sensation as our limbic system becomes engaged.2,3 As we enjoy daydreams of a retirement spent on a sail boat, or a relaxing lifestyle living by a lake, for example, the neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin actively stimulate our brains. The downside? These chemical reactions can motivate us to seek out instant gratification of those dreams as quickly as possible—an instinct that has wreaked havoc on 401(k)s and other retirement accounts the world over.
Investors, who otherwise seem rational, can at times abandon their long-term strategy to acquire immediate rewards—a new boat, an RV, or a vacation—after being affected by these physiological drivers. Frequently, the “rush” drives riskier decisions (Bitcoin, for example), and can significantly harm long-term outcomes.
Why, you might ask, might our physiology betray us in such a way?
Capturing the Evolutionary Spirit
Gordon Gekko, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” famously remarked that “Greed, for want of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
And he was right. Mostly.
What we refer to as greed today is better understood as an evolutionary response that allowed us to maximize our chances of survival in ancient times. Greed, it has been said, “begins in the neurochemistry of the brain”,4 representing an intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food. Turn back the clock some 50,000 years to Paleolithic times. This powerful instinct allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to protect and provide for their families with the “fear, protection seeking and renewed aggressiveness”5 required of their often short and brutish life, rewarding them with empowering testosterone and pleasure-inducing dopamine and oxytocin when they slayed a beast or successfully defended their tribe.
In modern times, however, these survival instincts can lead us to make genuinely ill-founded financial decisions because they enliven our desires for immediate gratification, subsequently motivating us to act—even though it’s often better, in an investing context, to stay put. They may also cause us to doubt sound investing decisions, resulting in needless anxiety and stress.
Working It Out
The great news for investors is that there are ways of tempering these powerfully seductive, primal instincts.
A Financial Advisor Can Help You Avoid Snap Decisions
The easiest guardrail to install is a professional advisor who manages your money. When you have a dopamine-fuelled rush to do something with your money, the best first step is a call to your financial planner or advisor. Their perspective, likely more rational than your own, can help you make decisions that will serve your best interests long term.
Exercise Can Help Calm Down a Money Rush
Before even calling or meeting with your advisor, or if your advisor is not readily available, there are some other steps you can take to tamp down your money rush before making a decision. For example, physical exertion stimulates dopamine and acts like a drug in an even more powerful way than money.
Every day physical exertions such as hiking, walking their dog, swimming, or even chopping logs, causes your body to release amphetamine-like chemicals, such as phenethylamine and the cannabinoid anandamine, into your brain that can dampen the desire for dopamine from an unnatural source, such as money.
These solutions are basic, but we’re talking here about basic human physiology. Knee bends, stretching, and deep breathing exercises, an invigorating swim, or simply exploring that new hiking trail all offer excellent means of clearing your head if you feel overwhelmed by financial pressures or if you have a meaningful financial decision to make. In short, just one session of physical exercise—particularly in the great outdoors—can carry profound effects.
Money can be so primally alluring that it can mimic the sensations of romantic attraction,6 so there has never been a more powerful argument to invest in real romantic pursuits with loved ones. A fun date night can help you keep your mind off money.
Sleep on It
Interestingly, rest, to the investor, is as crucial as exertion. As value investor Seth Klarman so sagely noted, “ultimately, nothing should be more important to investors than the ability to sleep soundly at night.” A study backed up this sentiment, finding sleep to be “a biological necessity… without it, there is only so far the band will stretch before it snaps, with both cognitive and emotional consequences.”7
Only one bad night of sleep will inhibit our memory and tamper with our ability to integrate new data with existing knowledge.8 It will also ramp up stress hormones, down-regulate dopamine and even potentially compromise our IQ.9 The takeaway? Never make big financial decisions when you’re tired. The phrase “sleep on it” carries literal, powerful connotations when it comes to money.
Something More Exciting
Famed economist John Maynard Keynes first remarked that individuals are driven by “animal spirits,” a salient observation that cuts to the heart of our often-primal relationship with money, and our evolutionary-driven hardwiring as a species that is defined by a daily and, in terms of survival, necessary pursuit of pleasure.
For the modern investor, this often means that even if we have rationally and confidently chosen a long-term, actively managed investing strategy, such as mutual funds, we might still feel anxious, stressed, or seduced by the latest Bitcoin or ETF goldrush, leading us to experience worry about losing out on a big profit, which makes us doubt our well informed, albeit less immediately exciting, approach.
The great news is that understanding the physiological mechanisms that lie behind these feelings and emotions allow us to make smart lifestyle choices that will benefit our long-term investing strategies.
- Talk to your advisor. When facing decisions about your investments, get professional guidance from your financial planner or advisor first. They can offer you a completely rational perspective your primal brain is not considering.
- Take a walk. The dopamine surge caused by thinking about money is powerful, but something as simple as a brisk walk, walking the dog, hiking, or chopping logs calms our pleasure pathways. So does a romantic evening with a loved one, or oxytocin-inducing quality time with our kids and families, making us less interested in gaining feelings of pleasure from unnatural sources, such as money.
- Stick to your strategy. Warren Buffett knows that holding a long-term investment and simultaneously rejecting the pull of exciting, risky new ventures is profitable–but takes a lot of courage. It can be physiologically tiring—one reason for George Soros’s famed backaches. So applaud your ability to hold firm, safe in the knowledge that you are making grounded financial choices for you and your family.
1 Zehndorfer, E. (2018). The Physiology of Irrational & Emotional Investing: Causes & Solutions. Routledge: London.
2 Lea, S.E.G., Webley, P. (2006). Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 29, 161-209.
3 Zink, C.F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurksi, M.E., Chappelow, J.C. & Berns, G.S. (2004). Human striatal responses to monetary reward depend on saliency. Neuron. 42, 509-517. Most recent data available.
4 Schwartz, T. (2010) Dope, Dopes & Dopamine: The Problem with Money. Harvard Business Review.
5 Lorenz, K.Z. (1963). On Aggression. Routledge.Markiewicz & Weber, 2013. Most recent data available.
6 Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Aron, A. (2004). Distinguishing arousal from novelty and challenge in initial romantic attraction between strangers. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 4, 361-372. Most recent data available.
7 As reported in EurekAlert. Press Release. Sleep-deprivation causes an emotional brain ‘disconnect’. Accessed at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-10/cp-sca101707.php. Most recent data available.
8 Tamminen, J., Lambon Ralph, M. A., & Lewis, P. A. (2013). The Role of Sleep Spindles and Slow-Wave Activity in Integrating New Information in Semantic Memory. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 39, 15376–15381. Most recent data available.
9 Fogel S.M,, Nader R., Cote K.A.,, Smith C.T. (2007) Sleep spindles and learning potential. Behavioral Neuroscience. 121,1–1. Most recent data available.
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