Emotions and Unconscious Beliefs

Before you can change the way you behave with money, you have to know how you feel.

Emotional Expressions

Facial expressions convey emotions and help us relate to each other. Emotional facial expressions are hard-wired - we are born with them. They cut across cultures (and in some studies, even across species). This means, for example, that the look of overt fear or happiness is the same everywhere in the world. It allows us to understand the emotions of others without language or words.

Universal Expressions

At the base of the emotion wheel are 7 unique universal macroexpressions: Sadness, fear, anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, and neutrality. Within each of these, there are more and less intense versions of that emotion. Sadness, for example, has a weak expression in boredom, and a high expression in grief, but all three still exist on the pure sadness continuum. Low level fear might be called anxiety - but it’s still fear. High level fear would be called terror. The images below show the 7 base universal expressions of human emotion, along with one example of their weaker expression.

Complex Emotions

That’s not to say there are only seven emotions, however. Like the color wheel, where the primary colors (red, blue and yellow) can be combined to form secondary colors (eg, orange or purple), so it is with the emotion wheel. Emotional oranges or purples are called “Complex Emotions.”

Here are some examples: Anger combined with disgust creates the emotion (and it’s countervailing microexpression) of contempt. Trust and joy create love. Trust and fear create submission. There are even deeper levels of combination as the emotional vocabulary and sophistication deepen. The emotion wheel below helps to visualize some of the variations.

The Thinking-Feeling Gap

Emotional expressions are universal, and so is our ability to read them. Yet, people in contemporary society aren’t very good at it. Without training, people only accurately name an emotion on someone else’s face 48% of the time. If joy and surprise – the two easiest expressions to see – are excluded, then that accuracy rate drops to 35%! We even have trouble naming our own emotions. Even when we can name them, we have a tendency to mask over uncomfortable emotions by rationalizing or blocking them with the conscious mind. Yet, even the practice of noticing and naming emotions drains their power. By feeling strong emotions and then letting them pass, we are more able to grow happy, healthy relationships, and to be able to look, at difficult subjects courageously.

Emotions and Money

Financial planners report that approximately 25% of their time with clients is spent on non-financial issues. Like with a diet, people have got every budget app there is but can’t seem to get control of their spending. Or their financial adviser drew up an estate plan ages ago—but they fail to execute it year after year. Or they’re so paralyzed by their fear of running out of money that they’re unable to deploy their assets into wise investments. In other words, it’s not financial literacy that’s lacking, it’s some unregulated emotion or belief that is running the show.

Brad Klontz, an expert in the growing field of financial therapy, discusses 4 common money scripts*, all of which are driven by beliefs and emotions. Beware, he says, when beliefs become too rigid- this is the place of misplaced emotional reactivity. (*the following types are derived from the work of Brad Klontz founder of Your Mental Wealth)

  • Avoidance. Money corrupts people, or It’s not okay for me to have a lot of money when others don’t.
  • Worship. These beliefs often boil down to variations of Money can buy happiness and You can never have enough money.
  • Status. People with this type of belief often equate self-worth to net worth: ‘Success is measured by the money I earn’, or ‘If I live a good life I’ll be taken care of financially’.
  • Vigilance. This belief system holds beliefs such as ‘It’s important to save for a rainy day’ and ‘You should always look for the best deal before buying something—even if it takes more time.’

What this means in practical terms is that there is often a gap between people’s plans and visions around money, and what they are able to act on. Identifying fears and concerns help people deal with financial challenges. You can’t fix the problem without dealing with the emotion.

Thinking Styles and Money

The way we go about making decisions requires different kinds of information depending on the person. The innate thinking style for each person to come to a decision varies. Your thinking style will be some combination of Possibility, Certainty and Opportunity based thinking. Each style has a subtly different set of motivations and needs. Some are quick and opportunistic; some are data driven and deep. By understanding where you fit, and where your partner fits, you can get a more complete set to support your choices, and may also stretch to include the supporting information from other types.

Money and Values

In addition to hidden scripts and emotions around money, we may also have conscious choices that vary from person to person: Our money values. Our values influence our life goals, and how we use our money. These also have emotions associated with them. Depending on what you actually value, you might make completely different choices. If you’re interested in ecological problems, you might choose to make longer term investments in things that solve problems for the planet, like water scarcity, or creating a new energy infrastructure. If you’re interested in engineering, you might invest in cutting edge fields related to your interests - your investment preferences might include robotics and AI. You might value experiences over property. You might value giving to others over keeping money for yourself. You might value freedom and autonomy over a salary. You might value complete control over your living space over the cooperation and compromise of a shared space. You might value timelessness and simplicity over being in fashion. When your individual financial decisions and your values are misaligned, there can be very strong negative emotions. When they are aligned, there can be great joy. Use your emotional reactions to start a dialogue around your financial values.