Every week or so I encounter the story of another person who has “escaped the rat race”, or stepped outside the cultural expectations of McMansion, sports car, and other conspicuous consumption. The latest is Mr. Money Moustache, who has made headlines for retiring at 30, from an everyday kind of job. These pioneers often have similar messages to spread: recognize that most of us spend money on things we want rather than need (she wrote, checking texts on her smartphone with a pause to play a game on her iPad), and we seem to acquire more money and more stuff on autopilot instead of really thinking about it.
This has now been immortalized in psychology as a theory of “mindless accumulation”, by researchers curious whether we will really endure annoyances to acquire more of something than we can really use.
Imagine this: You are wearing a pair of headphones, which automatically play the soothing tones of instrumental music from Final Fantasy X. You can just sit back and listen for 5 minutes…or, by pushing a button, you can hear an annoying buzzer for two-tenths of a second. Push that button 20 times (a grand total of 4 seconds of noise), and you’ve earned yourself a chocolate. In theory, you can acquire quite the hoard of chocolate – but when the headphones come off, you only really get as many as you can eat; any uneaten chocolates must be left behind. If you’ve earned a dozen but aren’t that hungry, you’ve exposed your eardrums to raucous noise for nothing.
And it turns out, people don’t pay attention to when they have enough chocolate for their needs. They keep pushing that button and accumulating more, even if it means they acquire ten chocolates when they only really want four – a.k.a., mindless accumulation. We do it even when earning more actually hurts us (no, they didn’t force-feed the participants all the chocolates they earned, but that’s the basic idea).
The good news is that if you force people to think about how much they’re earning, by just asking them a simple question about what the optimal number of rewards is, they’ll stop when they get there. The bad news, of course, is that we don’t ask ourselves this question automatically (how much chocolate do I really need?).
The worse news is that it’s a lot harder to answer when it’s real money and possessions instead of chocolates. It doesn’t take too many stories of bankruptcy after medical disaster to think we need a hefty financial safety net. There are also more trade-offs when you scale up to the real world; my smartphone is my lifeline to distant family members (even if it’s only through Words with Friends chats) and is well worth $100 a month because of it.
Even with those caveats, however, the fundamental lesson of this study remains: don’t be mindless about accumulating things. Just asking yourself whether and how much you really need something might be a key to saving money and being happier. The question may not be easy to answer all the time, depending on how your emotions get involved in your decision making, but make a habit of it and it should start making a difference, at least for the little things.
Hsee, C., Zhang, J., Cai, C., & Zhang, S. (2013). Overearning. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464785