Strengthening will-power to improve financial decisions

Strengthening will-power to improve financial decisions
09 April 2013

For most people self-control poses a problem. Self-control problems arise in situations where we must undergo immediate pain and/or avoid immediate pleasure to achieve long-term benefits.

Let’s face it we would all like to strengthen our will-power in some area of our life, be it to eat healthier, exercise regularly, overcome impulsive spending, save more, and so on. There are a myriad number of self-help books aimed at teaching us how to get more done, how to improve our habits and you know what, as well meaning as they are, it’s hard to break old habits and start new healthier ones, and its especially hard with addictive habits such as smoking, compulsive eating and excess spending. Then there are the routines we get into and become couch potatoes instead of keeping the promise to ourselves to exercise or work on our budget or financial goals…

Mental resolve

But there is hope. Researchers Iris W. Hung and Aparna A. Labroo studied the impact of the role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation, in other words ‘firming up will-power or mental resolve.’

Essentially to improve our mental resolve to do something (or not to do something) the researchers conducted “five experiments, which demonstrate that firming one’s muscles helps firm willpower and enhance self-control.”

The authors found clenching one’s fists, gritting one’s teeth, or scrunching one’s muscles actually firms willpower and consequently improves self-control.

We think with our body as much as our brain

If you think that is too easy consider what neuroscientist and former Wall Street Trader Dr John Coates says in his brilliant book, on how the body and brain cooperate at crucial moments in our lives, including most crucially financial risk, Dr Coates indicates: “The brain and body cooperate in producing our thoughts and behavior… neuroscientists have discovered that conscious, rational thought is not the main purpose of the brain, we are getting closer to the truth if we say that the basic operation of the brain is the organization of movement.” We think with our body as much as our brain.

He says: Decisions always have physical implications. “Thinking triggers a rapid series of somatic shifts.” Dr Coates’ book is a kaleidoscope of medical, biological and neurobiological research into mind body thinking and what happens physiologically when we make decisions. Essentially: “Choice is a whole-body experience.”

We have ignored the fact that we have bodies, and that our bodies affect the way we think. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, grandfather of behavioral economics and Nobel Prize winner for Economics has conducted research in the physiology of attention and arousal, and in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow pointed out that we think with our body.

Clench your fists and walk away

So could clenching our fists, gritting our teeth, or scrunching our muscles actually firm willpower and improve self-control? The research certainly indicates it improved the concentration and stamina in people they studied and they were able to better self-regulate their will-power.

From a consumer well-being perspective, the research has important implications because it demonstrates subtle but powerful ways in which people’s actions can alter their lives for the better.

Financial decision making is a lot more than a purely cognitive activity, according to the researchers and summed up by Dr Coates: “Our mental life is inescapably embodied.” Do yourself a favor the next time you are about to give in to temptation clench your fists and grit your teeth and you will soon have the resolve to walk away… it could save you a fortune in overspending or overeating.

“Tightfisted” might in fact make you less willing to part with your money.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments what influence muscle firming has on your self-control.


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Head of Behavioral Finance
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