CFI Blog

4 Ways Monkey Brain Needs Convincing

“Persuasion is often more effectual than force.”

A few of you know that I went to law school for a year at the University of Virginia. It only took a year for me to decide that spending days upon days in law firm libraries was not the life I’d envisioned it to be (or that the JAG guys made it seem like when I was deployed to Bosnia), leading me to transfer over to the business school instead. While I was in law school, one of the classes I took was torts. I remember my torts professor explaining one of the classes of a tort: willful blindness.

Willful blindness occurs when you know that something illegal is happening, but you pretend not to notice it.

Let’s say that you’re walking along the street when a random stranger comes up to you and offers you $50,000 to drive that car over there up to New York City. You could always use $50,000, and you don’t have anything else planned for the next three days, so why not? You hop in and take the keys, and then the guy says to wait a second and pop the trunk. You pop the trunk, which prevents you from seeing what’s going on back there. You hear a lot of muffled grunts and then an audible THUNK causes the car to rock up and down. The trunk closes and the guy smacks the trunk a couple of times.

“Off with ya!” he implores. “You’ll get the other half when you get to NYC.”

You haven’t actually started the car, but it’s moving, and the movement is clearly coming from the trunk.

Whistling innocently, you eye the phat stacks and drive away.

You’re complicit in a kidnapping, and goodness knows what else. “But, officer, I didn’t see them put that body in the trunk!” is not a defense. It is one, but it won’t get you anywhere, as willful blindness is not an acceptable defense in the law. Good luck getting Mark Geragos to represent you with that defense.

Monkey Brain likes to engage in a lot of willful blindness when it comes to getting your financial house in order. There’s nothing that he’d like to do more than to distract you, hide the credit card bills in the trunk, slam the door, and pretend nothing happened. At some point, you, being a responsible and mature person, have to come to grips with Monkey Brain’s miscreant behavior.

Prepare for the temper tantrum.

Monkey Brain is going to throw out a host of reasons why you shouldn’t change your behavior, and it’s going to require a lot of persuasion to convince him of the error of his ways and the righteousness of your ways.

Jeremy Dean, the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, illustrated some of the ways in which we fight persuasion and how to counteract them.

The ways Monkey Brain will drag his feet in the “money” talks

Brain will drag his feet in the “money” talks

Obviously, these will be either internal conversations or ones that you have with your spouse, but knowing how you resist persuasion and how to overcome that resistance will help you in taking action towards achieving your money goals.

Here are some of the ways in which Monkey Brain will fight you, and how you can overcome his objections.


Reactance occurs when you think that you’re having your freedom restricted. Think about when you were a teenager and your parents told you that you couldn’t smoke or drink. What did you want to do more of? Smoke and drink. That’s called the boomerang effect, and if we feel like our freedom to do something is being restricted, then we’ll just want to eat more of that forbidden fruit.

Where we’ll see it: Budgeting. Budgeting puts boundaries and restrictions on where and how much money you can spend.

How to fight it: Think instead of choosing where you want to spend your money. Instead of saying that you can’t spend more than $X in a certain category, reframe the decision as “I’m choosing to spend $X in this category so that I am able to save $Y for retirement.”

Buyer’s remorse

Dean calls this a “reality check,” where once you’ve done something, you reconsider whether or not it was a wise decision.

Where we’ll see it: Retirement savings. When we put money into retirement accounts, that money is tough to get to without paying hefty fines and penalties. Therefore, we’ll think long and hard about whether or not money now is more important than money later, and once we start down that line of thinking, we’ll choose money now. We discount the pleasure and pain that our future selves will encounter in a reaction called hyperbolic discounting. According to Monkey Brain, Future You is some random stranger, whereas buying something right now means immediate gratification.

How to fight it: Automatic contributions. If Monkey Brain doesn’t see the money hitting your spending account, he won’t think about it. If you have an amount automatically transferred into your retirement accounts each month, then he doesn’t see it, and by the time he realizes it’s gone, it’s too late. The pain of the penalty will be too much for him to try to get to it.

Rebelling against authority figures

When someone proposes an unpleasant solution to Monkey Brain, one of his first responses is “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE SMARTY PANTS? NOBODY TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” He lives with you all of the time (and you, unfortunately, live with him), so just because you tell him to do something doesn’t mean he’s going to listen. You’re his parent, the least authoritative figure in the Monkey Brain world.

Where we’ll see it: Paying down debt and controlling your spending. If you have credit card debt, Monkey Brain has had free rein to do what he wanted. You were the one who let him go hog wild, so when you tell him that he’s grounded and can’t have the credit cards when he goes out with his friends, he’s going to pitch a fit and question you.

How to fight it: Find a true authority figure. When you are deciding on a plan of action, having someone whose credentials are nearly impeccable (nobody is, after all, perfect) will give you the justification you need to move forward.

Not listening

If Monkey Brain starts to hear something he doesn’t like to hear, he’s going to stick his fingers in his ears and start yelling “NA NA NA NA CAN’T HEAR YOU.” He’ll try to distract you in any way possible (“LOOK! JIMMY CHOO SHOES!”) to get you off message. This is Monkey Brain’s way of enacting willful blindness.

Where we’ll see it: Retirement planning. Retirement planning involves taking money now and setting it aside for much, much later. Few things make Monkey Brain throw bananas out of the cage like taking some of his toys and putting them in a box that he can’t touch for 30 years. He’ll start making you think of all the things that you could be spending that money on right now to invoke feelings of regret and longing.

How to fight it: Make your plans in a distraction-free environment. Set aside specific time to do your planning. Turn off the television and the radio. Put away the books. Turn off the smart phone. Block the Internet on your computer for a couple of hours. Play ambient noise. Then get to it. Once you get started and are a few minutes in, you should start to hit a state of flow (as much as you can hit a state of flow while retirement planning), which will keep you absorbed in the task at hand.

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John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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