A lot of advice for succeeding involves being different. Avoiding blending in. Not following the crowd.
Just be yourself! Be weird! People will appreciate it!
And that may all be true. But it doesn’t make it easy.
Even if being different makes sense and is logical, our brains are not built for it.
We have an evolutionary need to fit in.
The History of the Brain
When we think in terms of human history, we think in hundreds of years. Maybe thousands of years. But this is actually only a tiny fragment of the time that we have spent becoming who we are. Our brains have evolved over millions of years.
For most of that evolution, we needed to fit in. We needed to maintain relationships at all costs. An individual out in the wild alone was not going to do so well.
Having people like and respect you was a matter of life and death. It was a life or death imperative to avoid angering your group. In order to survive, the safest route was to signal that we were part of the in group. That we belong. That we are just like the people around us.
Because otherwise, we’d be dead.
The Righteous Mind
I was thinking about this recently when reading notes that I had taken when I read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle of the book defines its focus: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Haidt discusses this history of fitting in in the context of political tribes and as part of a much larger (and more nuanced) exploration of why people sometimes vote against their apparent interests.
But this rationale applies well beyond politics.
We all feel that natural desire to fit in. To blend into the crowd.
And we have that feeling because for millions of years we needed to blend in to survive. This explains why many people have their heart rate shoot up when they need to give a speech. It is the fight or flight response. Your body is saying, “If you screw up this speech the listeners will cast us out and we will die!”
Today we probably won’t die from giving a bad speech. But our brain hasn’t caught up yet. We’re not really built for the modern world and it is hard to shake instincts built over millions of years.
Survival of the Richest
When you think about it, keeping up with the Joneses is really just a form of fitting in with your tribe. You are buying a sense of belonging.
This is not usually a conscious decision. You are not saying, “Steve got a BMW, so I need to get a nice car so that people don’t think Steve is better than me.” But your subconscious is saying “People like us have nice cars. We should get one before we get thrown out of the group.”
This is why we see keeping up with the Joneses in visible assets rather than invisible assets. We keep up with our neighbors’ home renovations and cars, but not their 401(k)s or bank account balances.
Our brain knows we don’t actually need to be wealthier and more successful. We just need appear wealthier and more successful to gain the respect of our peers.
My primitive brain thinks that if Steve has a nicer car and house and lawn than me, then he must be more in control of his life and more successful. He must be more worthy of being a respected leader.
Your brain doesn’t want you to be the weakest person in the neighborhood. More specifically, it doesn’t want you to appear to be the weakest. This means that if you need to take on credit card debt so that you can fit in and have the same luxuries as those around you, so be it.
And of course your point of comparison shifts when your tribe shifts. This means that when you move into a more expensive neighborhood, you have more expensive neighbors to keep up with.
Finding Your Own Tribe
The advice in the personal finance community often is some variation of “Hey! Stop it!” If we stop and think about it, we recognize that our spending is affected by those around us (and studies have shown that, as well). We also know that if we want to build wealth we need to be saving more and spending less. So why not just stop spending on status symbols? Just stop keeping up with the Joneses.
The problem is that the rational brain has had a lot less time to develop than the part of our brain that thinks we’re going to die if we look poorer than our tribe.
Instead of trying to overpower millions of years of instincts, maybe we should be trying to redirect them.
If our tribe is making us poor, why not pick a new tribe?
The Internet is a powerful tool for a lot of reasons, but one is that it connects us to people that we never would have known in the real world. We can read from our choice of millions of blogs. We can connect with billions of people. We can find people with any interest under the sun.
And we can find a community with a different benchmark to define ourselves.
You can find a new tribe to fit into. A tribe that fits your values. A tribe that pushes your subconscious brain into the direction that your rational brain wants to go anyway.
Your brain wants you to fit in. But geography doesn’t need to determine your benchmark. Do some research and choose your own tribe.