CFI Blog

A Thorn in Monkey Brain’s Side

“In those days the best painkiller was ice; it wasn’t addictive and it was particularly effective if you poured some whiskey over it.”
–George Burns

There are times when I’d like to convince myself that I’m a pretty macho guy with a lot of pain tolerance. After all, I was in the Army, I boxed (not too well) in college, and I go to the gym to lift heavy objects. So, when I get blasted by a set of allergies, I refuse to do anything about it.

“It’s just a cold,” I tell myself as I wheeze for air through clogged nostrils after having just sneezed for what must have been a Guinness Book of World Records 43rd consecutive time. “It’ll go away soon enough.”

Eventually, the allergy symptoms go away for a while, only to return when the next wave of pollen descends into the atmosphere, causing my immune system to go haywire yet again. Even though I think that the suffering of hay fever and its evil cousins won’t last terribly long, in total, I’ve probably suffered for years and years, since I’ve lost count of when I actually started having allergy symptoms (I can recall having them on both deployments to Bosnia, so approaching twenty years).

Then again, when I tore my meniscus and ACL while running with the dog, I knew right away that there was something wrong, and I couldn’t just throw a little dirt on it or walk it off. Instead, I thought, “#$*$! Torn MCL! [turns out I had the diagnosis wrong; this is why I’m not a doctor] This is going to take forever to get fixed.” I immediately went to the doctor the next Monday to start the process of getting it fixed.

It turns out that even though I expect to suffer from allergies for a much shorter time period than I would expect to suffer from a major knee injury, the reverse is true.

Why is this so?

Because we actually do something about the major pains. Allergies don’t create sufficient enough suffering, or at least in my case, to do something about it to alleviate the pain, so they linger like an unwanted houseguest or the song in the back of your head that you just can’t get rid of. However, when my knee popped, I knew I needed to get medical attention because that was, in my mind, never going to go away otherwise.

Psychologists Daniel Gilbert of Harvard and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have a term for our misjudgment about the length of time our suffering will take. It’s called the region-β paradox. The reason that we are willing to tolerate some pains more than others is that, at his core, Monkey Brain is lazy (see “Why Do We REALLY Need to Budget?” for more about the region-β paradox). Taking steps to alleviate suffering actually requires effort and energy, and Monkey Brain is inertia defined – an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and Monkey Brain likes his rest.

There are times in our personal lives when we should take action to improve our lot, but we can’t seem to escape the region-β paradox.

  • Eating just a few bites of candy or of dessert. I’m guilty of this one. A restaurant, for example, one whose name rhymes with Please cake Factory, will trot around desserts which are larger than my femur. Monkey Brain gets anchored to the cake that’s as big as a side of cow and realizes that so much excess is even bad for him. But. He. Wants. Cake. So, how does he convince you? “ONLY HALF. LEAVE HALF ON PLATE. ONLY EAT 1,600 CALORIES.” And, so you eat half of a side of cow’s worth of cake and convince yourself that it was reasonably healthy. The truth is that there is no part of dessert which is healthy. If sugar were healthy, we’d eat it six times a day instead of vegetables.
  • Drinking only a couple of drinks when we go out. This is an example that is cited in the research. We go out and get slightly inebriated and drive home. We justify that we’re not sloshed, so we must be good to drive home. We’re more impaired in driving than if we were sober, so are more dangerous to ourselves and to others. But, if we’d have played Sink the Bismarck for four rounds and gotten hammered, we’d have handed our keys to a sober driver or caught a taxi home, reducing the risk on the roads.
  • Paying for memberships that we don’t use. Do you have a cable subscription, gym membership, or some other recurring payment that you just don’t ever use? Did you buy boxes of Kleenex from Amazon on subscription and now they’re piling up like you’re running a ward for five-year-olds in the middle of the winter? Yet, it’s easier, according to Monkey Brain, to just pay the darn bill than it is to spend 15 minutes on the phone canceling the subscription.
  • Paying interest on your credit card bill. “Oh, it’s only a couple hundred dollars a month,” you rationalize to yourself. “That’s not such a big deal.” Remember, if you pay minimum payments on your credit card, it’s designed to amortize over seven years. That’s not death by a thousand paper cuts, but it is death by 84 paper cuts. You’d be much better off going through one short, intense period of deprivation and paying off the credit card all at once and being done with it (and NEVER EVER EVER GOING BACK!) than to have cumulative bouts of pain which will wind up costing you much, much more in the end.

There are two ways to convince Monkey Brain that the pain that he’s been ignoring is actually worth paying attention to. The first way is the painful (so to speak) path: actually increasing the amount of pain to the point where he has no choice but to notice it and do something about it. I’m personally no masochist, so I try to avoid that route.

The second way is to lower the threshold for getting Monkey Brain to notice. In other words, makes him more pain intolerant. Make him a pain weenie.

How do you do that?

  • Add in a zero to the equation. Researchers from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania have shown that if we include a zero in both present and future considerations, we make better decisions. For example, if we’re considering paying off the credit card, we could look at it as “$1,000 now or $2,000 later” (once we’ve included all of the interest). This will make Monkey Brain want to pay $2,000 later, since later is always better when it comes to a day of reckoning. However, if we add a zero into the choices, we can make it more appealing: “Pay $1,000 now and $0 later, or pay $0 and $2,000 later.” When we include the zeros in the comparison, Monkey Brain tends to discount the future less, so it becomes a more direct comparison.
  • Compare to a pain-free state. Monkey Brain rationalizes inaction by comparing your current pain to pain which would cause him to act. “SNIFFLES NOTHING, WIMP. AT LEAST YOU NOT HAVING HEART ATTACK!” he chides when you’re suffering through allergies. Instead, think about the times when you don’t have any sickness and look forward to being well again. You’ve now created the well versus unwell comparison in Monkey Brain’s mind, rather than suffering at a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 compared to a 9. By reframing your pain into a pain versus no pain scenario, you cause Monkey Brain to focus on the mere existence of the pain, making him want it to go away.
  • Break the solution down into small, easily achievable steps. Monkey Brain is a mountain builder. He likes to take little problems and make them huge. Instead of thinking rationally about the relatively simple process of calling the cable company to cut the cable, he thinks about all of that long, horrible time that you’re going to have to sit on hold listening to the Muzak versions of Metallica and Jay-Z, and the utter and horrid disappointment that is going to be in the call service representative’s voice when you inform her that you’re flying the nest, and how insanely bored you’re going to be when you can’t surf through 435 channels to find a reality television show tracking the lives of lint collectors. Instead, break it into small steps. All you’re going to do is just call the cable company. Then you can make dinner while putting the phone on speaker so you don’t actually have to listen to the horrendous Muzak. Once you’re committed into a couple of steps, the Zeigarnik Effect will kick in, and you won’t be able to stop. You can use the sunk cost fallacy to your advantage. You’ll have already dialed, and listened to 18 minutes of Muzak. You don’t want to go through that again, so you might as well go ahead and keep holding and cancel that cable.

Now, I have Benadryl in the medicine cabinet at the ready for the next time an allergy attack strikes. No more suffering, I swear by Monkey Brain!

How many little minor pains have you allowed to accumulate in your life simply because you can’t overcome inertia to do anything about them? Have any of them snowballed into big pains that you regret not taking care of earlier? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Around a year ago, I wrote about the painful process of coming clean about my bad financial habits to my prospective fiancée. If you haven’t read my tale of woe, go check it out!

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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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