Self-Interest: Not a Bad Thing In Itself

An article in a recent TIME magazine looked into why people invest in self-destructive ways. I read it and thought, “They do all kinds of self-destructive things–from the way they invest to how they eat and vegetate on the couch and express their anger on the highways to neglecting their spiritual lives.”

“What Was I Thinking?” is the title of the TIME (October 4, 2011) article, written by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich. Subtitle: “Why we often have trouble acting in our best financial interests.”

I was hooked by the title.

According to the authors, people are willing to walk several blocks to save $25 when buying an item selling for, say, $100. However, if the purchase is in the neighborhood of this time, say, $900, they are unwilling to walk the same distance to save the same amount of money. Why?

The answer lies in the field of “behavioral economics,” a relatively new area of study which considers how and why people make financial decisions. Since people often behave irrationally, behavioral economists look into the reasons why.

The reason people will walk blocks to save $25 for a small purchase, but will not do the same for a costlier one is also the reason people who are buying a $25,000 car will casually add on an optional feature costing $750, because, “Hey, what’s a measley $750 compared to the cost of the car as a whole?” And what’s $25 when compared to a $900 purchase?

Blind spots, the authors call them. Working against our own financial best interests.

Since the authors wrote the book, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes–and How to Correct Them, we may assume the three reasons for the self-destructive investing patterns of people in the TIME article are just the tip of the iceberg.

After giving the three reasons, let’s draw some parallels in the spiritual realm.

1) Loss aversion. This, economists aver, is the “granddaddy of all behavioral-economics principles.” It means people react twice as strongly to losing a certain amount of money as they do to gaining the same amount.

It explains why, when the stock market begins to dip, a lot of investors sell off winning stocks too quickly and hold on to losers longer than they should. “The pain of making a loss final by unloading shares outweighs the rational reasons for dumping them.”

2) Distraction. When stock prices begin falling, many investors sell everything, even the great stocks that have been earning rich dividends. Even if they don’t need the money for decades–maybe it’s retirement income–they panic and overreact. That is, they get distracted from the long view of things and scared by the quick dip in the stock market, which is simply a normal pattern.

Smart investors–the ones who take advantage of this–will buy stocks for their grandchildren when the prices are low and can be bought for next to nothing. These old guys have seen such slides in the stock market before, and they know it always recovers. Since they have nothing but time, they invest wisely for the long haul.

3) Attachment. Why don’t you change jobs if your satisfaction is so low? Because you spent all those years educating and training yourself for this position and you hate to walk away from it. That’s the principle. This is the “unconscious desire to have our current choices justify prior decisions.”

It probably explains the guy at the roulette wheel or crap table. He has blown so much money at this site, he hates to walk away and admit defeat. So he keeps throwing good money after bad.

Okay, hope I haven’t lost you here. Sometimes it takes a dedicated reader to stay with us to the end of these discourses. (This is the place to type in a smiley face. You know…. one of these 🙂

Why don’t people act more in their own best interests?

1) Ask that in the local tavern. The bartender could write you a book on how people keep pouring poisons into their systems, making their troubles worse than ever.

2) Ask that to your local therapist or counselor. The stories they could tell. The teenage girl who keeps running to that bum who is doing everything in his power to end up on death row, the wife who keeps sleeping around even though married to the finest man in the world, the politician who risks everything–reputation, job, family–all for a few thousand dollars under the table.

3) Ask yourself why you do some of the things you do. Why the second helping of dessert when you weren’t hungry. Why you refused to say ‘no’ to friends who invited you to a party you did not want to attend but went along anyway. Why you turned over and went back to sleep this morning rather than get up and exercise and take your two-mile walk or jog.

I don’t know all the answer, but I know a big one: Inertia.

Inertia is a concept in physics, you might recall from high school. The tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest, or a body in motion to continue in motion.

In short, it takes effort to get going or to stop doing something. Effort which we do not have at that moment. For the effort, we need motivation.

Later in this same issue of TIME, writer Bill Saporito talks about “firing” a bank when it begins charging fees for services you can get free elsewhere. He asks why people don’t do that–change banks or airlines–but continue as customers even when the companies make it so difficult to stay. His answer: The thought of firing your bank or credit-card issuers feels good, but they’ve got a big advantage over us in the form of inertia: it’s a pain in the b–t to switch accounts.

Inertia is what keeps the sinner bolted to the pew on Sundays when the pastor preaches an impassioned sermon calling for people to repent and come to eternal life.

Inertia is what keeps people in miserable marriages without either getting out or getting help.

Inertia keeps members in destructive churches when fine, healthy alternatives are just down the road or across town.

Inertia keeps us from changing.

And that makes inertia a deadly enemy for all who would live righteously and serve God in this world.

God is forever asking us to change, to grow, to obey, to respond to promptings of His Spirit, to do the hard thing.

Only a strong motivation can get us up off dead center to do God’s will when it requires us to change.

So, the issue then is: Motivation: What can get through to people to make us want God’s will above everything else?

Answer: Self-Interest.

Jesus said, “What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:26)

Another time, the Lord said, “I assure you, there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of me and the gospel, who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions–and eternal life in the age to come.” (Mark 10:29-30)

The Apostle Peter called on people to “be saved from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:40)

It’s the best thing for ourselves we ever do, when we get up and come to Jesus.

Talk about your smart investment!

2 thoughts on “Self-Interest: Not a Bad Thing In Itself

  1. Joe, I’m going to take a spiritual break from facebook….can you add me to your blog…so I can receive it through my email address? I’d love to be reading them before/if I ever return to fb. Just need a time to be quiet and listen.



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