Explanatory Styles and Financial Baby Steps

This morning as my daughter was learning to pull herself up in her crib, I became aware of how I kept my hand on her back, supporting her. Without thinking about it I maintained a presence that was close enough to mitigate a swift fall that might injure, but not so close that she couldn't experiment on her own (and perhaps get a minor bonk or two to the head as she went along). It occurred to me that even this small activity of learning a new skill was a template for her in how she would see the world.

Our experiences shape our beliefs, and experiences are quite subjective things. My daughter's experience of her new activity might be "I am so strong!" or "The room looks different from here." Should she fall, her experience would indicate "Well, that was unpleasant but I sure liked standing while I was up -- maybe I'll try again." Or if the fall was enough to hurt or scare, she might believe that standing is a dangerous activity that should be avoided.

This is a small example (and one that probably only occurs to a caffeine-deprived therapist whose baby wakes up at a quarter to 6:00), but the idea behind it is well-established.

The beliefs that we use to give meaning to our experiences are generally organized into patterns, or Explanatory Styles. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman is the clinician who is most often associated with the concept of Explanatory Styles through his work in the field of Positive Psychology.

Awhile back I developed a simple quiz to demonstrate how people bring their Explanatory Style into their experiences with money. The quiz asked respondents to identify the thought or belief that would occur in the following situations:

1) You overdraw your bank account and are charged a $39 fee.
Option A: "I never have enough money."
Option B: "This month I didn't account for some extra expenses that I had."

2) You find $20 in a jacket pocket.
Option A: "This is my lucky day!"
Option B: "I'm so lucky!"

3) Even though you've always paid your bill on time, your creditor mysteriously raises your APR.
Option A: "Maybe a temporary dip in my credit score caused this creditor to try to raise my rate."
Option B: "Creditors are unfeeling beasts."

4) Someone with your creditor's fraud department calls to alert you to suspicious activity on your account.
Option A: "Here is one instance when this creditor actually did something right."
Option B: "Creditors do their best to provide good customer service."

5) Your investment portfolio grew significantly in value over the last couple years.
Option A: "The market did well."
Option B: "I did a good job choosing investments."

6) When bringing some items to the register for purchase, the total price is higher than you'd anticipated.
Option A: "I must have miscalculated how much these things cost all together."
Option B: "Some of these items must have been mis-marked."

The six items are organized into three sets of one positive scenario and one negative scenario. The positive/negative dyads correspond to the three dimensions of interpretation that constitute one's Explanatory Style.

The first two scenarios have to do with the value of Permanence, or how we perceive time. When something bad happens, do we think that such a result is to be expected always? What about when something good happens? Is that a result of something that is permanent (such as a character trait) or is it something that just happened randomly?

The second set of scenarios relate to the value of Pervasiveness, whether something is seen as specific or something that is true across all situations. A jump in APR could thus be experienced as a particular event relating to the one account or it can take on the specter of everything that is terrible about the credit industry. A helpful customer service agent could be seen as either an anomaly or as an accurate representative of overall good business.

The final two scenarios demonstrate the value of Personalization, whether we see the event as due to our own actions or whether it occurred because of outside forces. Personalization is the most important dimension when it comes to determining how we feel about our ability to change. A person who sees negative events as universal and always true might still find the will to alter his behavior, but only if he believes that doing so might make a difference. If he believes that he himself is the source of his misfortune then what motivation is there to change?

I posed these six scenarios to a group taking the Seven Weeks to Financial Sanity teleconference organized by Galia Gichon and M.P. Dunleavey. What we discovered was that even people who were familiar with Explanatory Styles and Learned Optimism were surprised how often they identified with the pessimistic/negative statement when it came to money. It seems that we can view the world as generally good and believe in our own positive self-agency, and money can still be an area of our lives where we struggle with destructive frames.

Why is this true? Well, perhaps we grew up in a home where money was treated as a great evil or a cause of conflict. Perhaps the consequences we experienced around our earliest financial decisions were too punitive or hard to bear. Perhaps issues of money separated us from others and caused us to feel isolated.

Perhaps we did not have that supportive parental hand guiding us, preventing the worst spills but still allowing for experimentation and learning. Not to blame parents here -- it's much more straightforward to help a child learn to walk than to navigate the complexities of financial self-care.

Whatever the particular cause (or more likely accumulation and reinforcement of causes), it behooves us to think about how we view ourselves as agents in a money world. The benefit of being an adult is that you can bring events from the past forward into consciousness and apply adult maturity and cognition to understanding them. This new understanding can, with applied practice, become a new cognitive frame that supports healthy financial self-care.

Zen AF