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Personal Finance FAQ

Why Monkey Brain Loves Financial “Secrets”

Secret?
Guaranteed to make Monkey Brain go down that path!

“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”
–Lucille Ball

When I was in middle school, I got my first job. The local paper, the Marietta Daily Journal, hired a bunch of kids go to door-to-door to sell newspaper subscriptions. My parents must have loved it because someone would come to my house, pick me up, drive me to a random neighborhood, and turn me loose to terrorize poor homeowners. I had a bunch of scripts and made up stories and had a blast of it. Occasionally, I’d even sell a dozen subscriptions in a week, giving me a paycheck of over a hundred dollars.

A hundred dollars to a middle schooler is about the same as a million dollars to an adult. I couldn’t find enough Atari games to buy with all of the cash flowing into my coffers. I thought I was the best salesman since the Joe Isuzu. At least, until the newspaper started publishing a weekly newsletter for all of the saleskids. They posted the top weekly sales and told stories about the super-sellers. There was one person who was selling 40 – 50 subscriptions per week! I don’t even remember the guy’s name, but they called him “Tony the Tiger,” since the person who wrote the newsletters came up with nicknames for the top 10 sellers. I broke the top 10 once, and I was Jason “U” Hull.

My ego was shattered. I was top dog in my own mind, and suddenly, I had a bunch of other people to compare myself to. I fell far short.

I’d convinced myself that “Tony the Tiger” knew something that I didn’t. He must have known some sales secret about selling newspaper subscriptions that I didn’t know about. I tried to see if we could shadow this sales superstar, but they couldn’t make it happen, and soon thereafter, the newspaper shelved the child laborer plan – probably because there was only one “Tony the Tiger.”

I admit, I’m a sucker for secrets. Be it the secret to door-to-door sales to how to generate a gazillion newsletter subscribers, I’ve always been mesmerized by secrets and shortcuts.

We also think that there are financial secrets to allow us to invest a dollar and turn it into a zillion dollars. While the truth is that there are no financial secrets, that doesn’t stop Monkey Brain from being mesmerized by them.

Why Does Monkey Brain Fall for Personal Finance “Secrets?”

There are a couple of reasons why Monkey Brain loves to find out about “secrets” even if they’re not really secrets:

  • Secrets invite trust and support. B.J. Fogg of Stanford talks about the use of secrets to invoke the social dynamics of trust and support in his book Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. When a “guru” offers to share a secret with you, then it sets up a relationship based on trust and support. The person sharing the secret is telling you that he believes in you enough to share that secret and also has a trusting relationship with you because you’re not going to share that secret. By listening to the “secret,” you’re engaged in a relationship, and you feel the need to give back. The secret sharer invokes the psychological desire for reciprocity. He gave you something, and you’ll feel compelled to give something back.
  • Storytelling binds you. As professor Melanie Green of the University of North Carolina relates, whenever we hear a story that allows us to relate our experiences to the storyteller’s experiences, we feel a closer tie to the storyteller. It’s the same as sharing gossip – we feel more connected to the gossiper. We’re more likely to believe what the storyteller says, and we feel like the storyteller is one of us, understands our problems, and is more likely to be able to solve them.

Someone who is telling you that he can share a financial secret with you is merely framing known knowledge in a way that will appeal to Monkey Brain and convince you to go with that person.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when you should pay for good information. However, if someone has good information (namely, how to specifically apply concepts to your situation or to solve problems which are specific to you), that person should be happy to explain that it’s specialized information which can be used to apply to your situation rather than framing that information as a “secret.”

When you are faced with someone who is promising a “secret,” how should you respond?

I’m as much of a sucker for the purveyors of secrets as anyone. I’m always looking for an “in” that nobody else knows about. Just remember that if there was truly a secret to making more money, the secret-teller wouldn’t be sharing it; he’d be making money with that secret instead.

By

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business.

You can read more about him in the About Page.

4 replies on “Why Monkey Brain Loves Financial “Secrets””

“Just remember that if there was truly a secret to making more money, the secret-teller wouldn’t be sharing it; he’d be making money with that secret instead.”

That’s the key for me. If I could have that on a t-shirt, or written on my arm, I’d be all set.

Do you think there’s a gender difference in how we respond to secrets like this?

Head down to your tattoo parlor.

You raise an excellent question regarding gender differences. Women share gossip to build closer bonds, and to me, sharing “secrets” equates to gossiping in terms of building bonds (for, after all, isn’t gossip the sharing of secrets?), so it seems intuitive to me that women would be more likely to be drawn in. Men would be more likely to be drawn in to the notion of short cutting or accelerating progress, but I don’t have any academic research right at hand to confirm that notion.

I think there are a couple of other factors at play in our lil monkey brains.

There’s the desire for the easy fix. We all are much more interested in working when we know we don’t actually have to. If someone is selling you the secret key to it all, it let us think there’s some tiny morsel of advice that will allow us success without the toil we’d otherwise have to put in to succeed. Because anyone who sells you the advice probably won’t just tell you to keep working hard.

Additionally, a secret leads us to believe that something is foolproof. That we can absolutely be successful if we just do one key thing. That sounds a lot better than the fact that you might put in a lot of work and still not see a lot of result. Anyone emphasizing the key to success is really emphasizing “success.”

Abigail–

You nailed it. We LOVE shortcuts and easy fixes. Work is the dirtiest four letter word in Monkey Brain’s vocabulary (“none” might be a close second).

We fear failure. We don’t like to acknowledge that risk contains two components, only one of which is reward. That’s why disclaimers are all in small print, huh?

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