Improving spending behavior with mindfulness

Improving spending behavior with mindfulness
19 April 2013

The world is exceedingly complex and our general lack of attention makes it even more so. One of the keys to simplifying our life and improving our behavior is the ability to control our attention. Research has shown that people trained in mindfulness find it helpful in changing the areas of their lives that they have found the most problematic.

Understanding and improving attention is the foundation of the work of Michael Posner which is cited as a “harbinger or catalyst to develop behavior training.” Specifically: “to regulate behavior, to delay reward, resolving inner conflict and to develop an understanding of the minds of others.”

Michael Posner is one of the most creative and influential psychologists of the past century. He has been a pioneer in cognitive science and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive neuroscience. In fact his work is so influential that a book documenting the impact of his work was published by the American Psychological Association: Developing Individuality In The Human Brain: A Tribute To Michael I. Posner (Decade of Behavior).

It could be said that Posner’s research has shown it is our lack of attention that causes us to ‘misbehave’ or continue with habits that are not necessarily good for us.

One of Posner’s recent studies revealed that mindful meditation in smokers actually changed the architecture of the brain’s white matter (white matter actively affects how the brain learns and functions). What’s more, test subjects cut back on the number of cigarettes they went through by about 70 percent. Participants didn’t necessarily want to quit, so it was “actually surprising to the people who smoked when they found out they weren’t smoking so much,” Posner said.

We think, deliberate and plan much less than we care to admit

A unique aspect of Posner’s research, which measures attention in the brain and body through EEG, fMRI and Genes analysis, is the assessment of different methods of training attention between the East and West. Mindfulness and integrated body training is often associated with the east and aimed at better self-regulation. In the west training of the mind is often associated with learning memory improvement practices for improving cognitive or thinking skills. Posner’s research shows that thinking is a skill that can be learned, just as we learn to walk, talk, ride a bike, swim or read and when combined with eastern practices of mindfulness it actually improves cognition and self control.

Researchers have shown that over a 3 to 5 month period those that underwent cognitive memory skills training together with meditation training and walks in nature greatly improved their thinking ability and had better self-control over negative urges, such as overeating, overspending and smoking.

If you want to improve your ability to better control your habits consider introducing these activities into your week.

Memory training

Through a number of experiments over the past decade, Susanne Jaeggi of the University of Maryland, College Park, and others have found that participants who train with n-back tasks (Participants must remember both the recent stimuli and an increasing number of stimuli before it (e.g., the stimulus "1-back," "2-back," etc)  over the course of approximately a month for about 20 minutes per day not only get better at the n-back task itself, but also experience "transfer" to other cognitive tasks on which they did not train. "The effects generalize to important domains such as attentional control, reasoning, reading, or mathematical skills," Jaeggi says. "Many of these improvements remain over the course of several months, suggesting that the benefits of the training are long lasting."

Another way is to play chess regularly. This article and infographic explains the 10 big brain benefits of playing chess.

Mindfulness Training

A study by psychologist Michael Mrazek of University of California, Santa Barbara (see Mindfulness improves reading ability, working memory, and task-focus) says: “cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function.”

Mindfulness is awareness of one’s present thoughts, emotions or actions. Mindfulness training involves bringing one’s awareness back from the past or the future into the present moment. Many studies have shown the training effects of mindfulness, including reduced pain and stress, improvement of cognitive functioning and positive emotion. Mindfulness training has shown significantly greater improvement of performance in attention. Practitioners who performed mindfulness training for 20 minutes per day, over 3 months showed lower anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue, and higher vigor, in addition to significantly reduced stress as measured by cortisol secretion after a stressful experience.

Training such as Tai Chi, Yoga, martial arts may have similar impact.

Walk in nature

When people are required to focus their attention and put forth sustained cognitive effort, there is a possibility of mental fatigue. There is evidence of improved attention after nature exposure because of a state change restoring fatigue. A twenty minute walk in nature two or three times per week will revitalize your mind and help improve your cognitive reasoning. 

‘Thinking about thinking’ with awareness is a powerful way of having more control over our behavior.

The ability to stay focused is a crucial task in dealing with money. Paying attention has a very important role in bringing awareness to all our actions, and may help us improve our overall well being. What do you do to ensure you overcome self-defeating habits?


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Head of Behavioral Finance
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