How we’re wired

I’ve observed something over the years that I believe is problematic, and the persistence of the error is rarely recognized until the damage is already done and beyond correcting. It seems most people search for facts with the idea that a reasonable and obvious interpretation of the information will lead them - and typically anyone – to a universal truth on a particular issue.

But that’s not always the case.

The Tragic Case of Ignaz Semmelweis

Perhaps you’ve heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, the physician who first discovered the importance of washing one’s hands in order to curb the spread of infection. Semmelweis worked in the maternity department at the Vienna General Hospital in Vienna in 1847. Puerperal fever was killing many of his patients until Semmelweis started scrubbing with a chlorinated lime solution before and after each treatment. The death rate went from around 10% of patients to around 1 or 2%. It would seem that the medical community would celebrate such a discovery and hail Semmelweis as a hero. But what actually happened is that Semmelweis was written off as insane, committed to an asylum, and died from an infection that resulted from a severe beating by the guards. It wasn’t until years after his death when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease that Semmelweis was recognized for his discovery.

Today, hand washing is accepted as a fundamental practice for infection prevention. So why was Semmelweis dismissed and driven out of the medical community for suggesting it? Because, despite the obvious proof of its effectiveness, it was offensive to physicians in that day to suggest they were somehow “contaminated” and in need of washing. Doctors were gentlemen, and gentlemen believed they had clean hands no matter what they handled. Faulty assumptions about themselves combined with mob mentality meant that In Semmelweis’s case evidence was not enough to overcome bias.

You’ve probably experienced this yourself. We like to think we analyze facts to determine objective truth, but we aren’t robots. Our brains are a mixed bag of experiences, emotions, and conditioned behaviors that inevitably muddy the water of our critical thinking skills. It’s not to say that we always get it wrong because of the interplay of those elements, but it does mean that perceived truth is often subjective and rarely the objective universal truth we espouse. More often than not, we align with the stated beliefs and practices of the people we find trustworthy and respectable more than the evidence itself.

Many of you at this point are probably asking, “Where is he going with this?” Here’s the point.

As intellectuals pursuing truth, hyper-aware of our faulty thinking and the lure of the emotions that lead us to consensus with a group of people, we need to take the time to contemplate what we believe and why we believe it. How we think and make decisions matters. Culturally, we are so prone to biased information and tribalism in all facets of life. Tribalism doesn’t just wreck your finances; ignoring it wrecks families, faith, and even kills people. Wars and horrible events have happened in history due to people following ideologies without a healthy level of questioning. Our core instincts drive us toward safety, connection, acceptance by association, and the social status that comes with Tribalism over a clear picture of the consequences that may come from its adoption.

When it comes to financial planning, it’s one thing for you to bear the consequences of poorly managing your own finances because you think you’ll always be your ideal self and live like the Influencer and Tribe you follow. But it’s altogether worse when the mindless following of an ideology leads to the villainizing and oppression of another group of people. Tribalism is at the center of political movements, racism, religion, and is a repetitive theme in societies on almost every topic.

‘Tribalism’ is a word growing in use and popularity. But what is it, exactly?


At its core, tribalism is about survival. In pre-industrialized times, groups of people banded together as tribes to protect their resources and live in as much safety as possible. In order to accomplish this, they had to be wary of anyone who did not look, dress, speak, or live like them. With tribalism, there is strength in numbers. It’s easy to believe the way you and your “tribe” see the world is the only way to see it, and that belief is increasingly validated by the number of people in your tribe.

As individuals, we still crave the security that comes when others look, dress, speak, and live like we do. We are either unconsciously or consciously aware of our insecurities, so most of us are hesitant to exclusively trust our judgements in isolation without any other human beings’ perspective, which is a biological hedge of sorts against the problems we face when governing ourselves. This is why we ask for the stranger’s opinion about a shirt at the store and why we lean on Facebook to tell us Mom jeans are back in style. In our pursuit for truth or when we want to know what to think about a particular topic, we lean on the understanding of others. We are especially drawn to those who display confidence in their stated beliefs because confidence implies that they have a universal truth applicable to every person, in every context.

All of us are looking for a concrete framework in which to rest our beliefs as it relates to religion, politics, medicine, global warming, investing, etc. You name it. But our search for truth almost always includes our desire for the affirmation, connection, and identification that comes with being a member or supporter of this group or that group.

And here’s where it gets messy: we all have a tendency to align our beliefs with a particular group because we appreciate the way that group is perceived more than on the merits of what they actually believe. If a group of confident intellectuals articulate a structure of beliefs around a particular topic and, in addition, have a passionate dissent of any opposing view, history would suggest that people tend to go along with the ideas even if they don’t understand them because it meets a large segment of the population’s emotional needs.

Tribalism and Politics

At an event supporting Hillary Clinton, and not unlike other presidential campaigns, crowds gathered in their paraphernalia to support their candidate. One late night TV host decided to do an interesting social experiment. He sent his crew to ask the Clinton fan base what they thought about her policies, but when asking questions, they replaced Clintons’ position with direct quotes from her opponent. Essentially, this was a clever way to test if the person supported Hillary for president because they aligned with her actual beliefs or if they just aligned with a movement for connection.

Here’s the clip.

Why do we fall into Tribalism?

The obvious reason people fall into this trap is that it gives them a sense of community. Though this may be virtual and not face-to-face, two humans identifying with an ideology creates a strong bond and, the more people that share it, the stronger the pull of Tribalism becomes.

Strength in numbers, right?

The second reason someone might do this is safety. Humans feel safe when they find a strong voice of reason, especially if other people they respect fall in line too. It doesn’t matter if the idea is wrong. In fact, many may never do a thorough examination for themselves of whether the idea is valid, because the confident ideology makes them feel stable and safe.

The third reason for this strong demonstration of Tribalism is that the identification makes us feel, characteristically speaking, similar to the people leading us in the group-think exercise. Leaders of ideologies become revered, and followers tend to mimic their words and mannerisms in an effort to be more like them. Because we are drawn to people who are like us, we believe those we respect will be somehow drawn to us if we appear to be like them.

You may find yourself asking again, where is he going with this and how is it relevant to financial planning.

Rational vs Irrational

Well, it’s important to be aware of our proclivity for these systems of belief and to offset the loss of truth for our future selves as much as possible. One way to do this when making critical decisions for you and your family, is by including another person in your decision making who can consider a set of facts surrounding your situation and provide wise counsel. This person can review the facts pertaining to your situation and provide solutions without running into the proverbial walls in your mind created by short-term desires that are contrary to your long-term benefit. Obviously, this person will filter their thoughts through their own experiences, emotions, and learned behaviors when giving advice as well. The difference is that your instant gratification competes with your best intentions, but it’s unlikely your counsel will be interested in an outcome that satiates your contentment now at the expense of your stated long-term objective.

In other words, you may find instant gratification when you fail to save money and buy the nicest vacation ever, but in doing so, your counsel gains nothing other than the realization that their advice and path did not properly motivate you to accomplish your stated objective. An advisors’ gratification will come, emotionally and monetarily, if you successfully follow a framework that aligns with your best intentions.

It’s funny to me - and a poignant paradox - when I hear a DIY advocate suggest that a person should do their own financial planning by saying, “no one cares more about your money than you do so you should manage it.” Any social scientist worth their salt would say that that is precisely the problem - no one cares more about your money than you do, and this creates a constant tension between emotional needs and rational needs each time you face a financial decision.

This is the very reason your financial planning decisions need a framework of accountability, and the accountability should be structured in two ways.

  1. The implementation of the plan needs to be managed by an automated infrastructure that can only be changed by disclosing to the managing party your need to do so. You have complete control over the system and what it does for you, but by requiring another party to make the changes or creating a system where another party will be made aware of the changes you’ve made, raises your cognitive level of self-consciousness to consider how you’ll be perceived when making a change that allows for your instant gratification. Considering this outsider’s rationally detached view will cause me to pause and think before acting because the knowledge and consequence of my change is no longer limited to me. My irrational actions are exposed, which brings in a new set of factors to consider such as outside perception, embarrassment, and social conflict. This jointly managed infrastructure for the financial plan is there to avoid interruption (starting and stopping due to personal subjective assessments of where you are and what you want), selfish impulse, and the all too common chasing of fads. Humans are more likely to fill and properly administer medication to their pets than they are to themselves. Sadly, if 100 people are prescribed a drug, one-third of them won’t even fill the prescription, and half of the remaining 67 that will fill it, won’t even take the medication correctly. We tend to inflict pain on ourselves unnecessarily because of our struggle to make our future selves a priority and delay gratification. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

  2. Second, always consult with outside counsel (someone not intimately tied to your emotions and experiences) when making financial decisions.

Think for yourself, though not by yourself

Today there are more people than ever fighting to get you in their tribe. There are influencers, celebrities, businesses, TV personalities, bloggers, authors, podcasters, pastors, guru’s, and politicians looking for followers with hopes of attracting as many people as possible. When these voices tell you to do something, stop for a moment and ask yourself, do I align with this because I’ve thoroughly vetted if their version of truth is true for me, or have I adopted their way of seeing because it connects me to a group I respect, or because I like how they look, or because it makes me feel safe, and so on. These prominent voices tend to believe that what is true for them is true for all, and they often project that their worldview is universally true for anyone.

This applies to every ideology, not just financial planning

Approach topics with critical thinking skills instead of just believing what others believe because it feels and sounds good. Question the motives attached to the belief, analyze its origin, and collaborate with thinkers that believe differently to test if you hold a logical and valid conclusion. Who knows, in the end your beliefs on the topic may resemble or perfectly mirror those of a Tribe, but at least you tested the hypothesis instead of lazily jumping to the thought “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”

My hope is that you’ll find an informed truth, constructed by your own analysis, rather than embrace a cheap imitation of someone else’s worldview. If everyone worked with this level of intentional thinking, Tribes would fall apart, we would think outside of the boxes we’re given, and productive conversations about the state of our world and what to do could finally begin.

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