New Internationalist

Psychology

Issue 306

Heart of gold

Money's emotional, argues Dorothy Rowe.

MONEY mattered a great deal to Patsy and Sam, but it meant something different to each of them. That was why they argued.

When they got married Patsy and Sam were determined they would be very sensible about money. They worked out how much each of them would have to save every month so that in two years' time they'd have the deposit on a house. But things didn't turn out just as they planned. Every month Sam didn't have quite enough money to put away. He always found that he had to stand his round when he was out drinking with his friends, and he couldn't let his football team down by not going to all the away matches. Then there was his father's fiftieth - he had to get the old man a decent present. That took all that month's savings. When he won a bit of money on a bet he thought he'd spend it on a great Christmas party for all their friends, but Patsy threatened to leave him if he didn't save it.

Patsy never fell short in her monthly savings. In fact, she always put away a bit more than agreed. She'd save on fares by walking to work and she'd skimp on lunches. What mattered to her was buying a really nice house. That was one of the goals she'd set herself.

When Patsy and Sam read their joint bank statement or pooled their change to buy a coffee, they agreed on what the figures and the coins meant. They were each using a set of meanings which they shared with one another and with the rest of society. But when they set about deciding what they would do with the money they each used their own individual meanings which they had given to money.

This is what we all do. We each have two sets of meanings for money, a set of public, shared meanings and a set of private, personal meanings. With our public meanings we agree that this lump of metal is a dollar, or a pound, or a rupee, and that lump of metal can be thrown away. Our private meanings are ours alone and arise out of our own personal experience, needs and wishes. There isn't one real meaning of money. There are thousands of different meanings, thousands of different ideas.

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Whenever Patsy and Sam had an argument over money - and, like most couples, this is what they argued about most frequently - they were each arguing for a different priority, although they didn't make this clear. That's why they never resolved their arguments.

When I, as a psychologist, had to mediate between them I asked each of them a certain question. I asked Sam, 'Why is it important to you to stand your round with your friends and buy your father an expensive present?'

He replied: 'My friends wouldn't like me if I didn't pay my share, and I want my dad to know I love him.'

'Why,' I asked, 'is it important to you to make sure that your friends like you and your father knows you love him?'

'Well, that's what matters most in life, friends and family. It's what life's about.'

Sam was telling me what was his top priority - creating and maintaining good relationships.

I asked Patsy: 'Why is it important to you to have a goal and achieve your goal?'

She said: 'That's what's life's about, isn't it, developing yourself, being organized so you can achieve things. I've got to have a sense of achievement or I'm nothing.'

All of us have as our top priority either the maintenance of good relationships or a sense of achievement. Of course we all want to have both, but often in life we are forced to choose. If we don't know what our top priority is and we make a choice which goes against our grain, we'll suffer.

After Sam had told me his top priority I could have asked him: 'What would happen to you if everybody in the world rejected and abandoned you?' This would have been the most terrible question because I would be asking Sam to contemplate the annihilation of himself as a person. Patsy mentioned such an annihilation when she said, 'I've got to have a sense of achievement or I am nothing'.

If Sam found that he'd lost all the people who are important to him, and if Patsy found that she couldn't keep everything organized and under control, they would each feel that somehow they were falling apart, disintegrating, even disappearing. We all encounter this most horrible and frightening of experiences when we find that we have made a serious error of judgment. Perhaps we are sacked from a job in which we felt secure or we're betrayed by someone we thought loved us. The set of ideas we've developed about ourselves and our world has proved to be incorrect. The ideas fall apart, and we feel that we ourselves are falling apart. The ideas we develop in order to protect ourselves against such an experience influence all our decisions, especially those we make about money.

We all need to survive in two different ways. We need to survive as a physical body and we need to survive as a person, and we use money for both. Our need to survive as a person can often override our good sense. Patsy earned a good salary and didn't need to make life harder for herself in order to save. Sam's friends liked him and accepted that he was saving money in order to please the woman he loved.

However, we use money not only to survive as a person, but also to express who that person is. This usually involves our ideas about morality and how we think we ought to behave.

Recently I was involved in a British television series which looked at the way people who'd had huge wins on the national lottery handled their new wealth. One middle-aged couple who had worked hard all their lives believed that working hard was a prime virtue. Not for them the world cruise and the holiday home. They bought a sprawling and previously unsuccessful country hotel and determined to turn it into an outstanding business.

Another lottery player saw her win as something she didn't deserve. Like many people, she believed that she lived in a Just World where, eventually, goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. Instead of being happy she felt guilty and frightened because she was sure that something bad would happen to her. Then her beloved dogs contracted an incurable illness and one after the other died. She saw this disaster as the punishment which balanced out her undeserved good fortune.

Whether we're eking out till the next pay day or, like George Soros, deciding to move a few millions here or there, we're being guided in our decisions by the private meanings we give to money. The reason that billions of dollars shifts around the world every day is not simply due to the growth in international trade and the spread of computers. It's also because so many men protect their sense of being a person by competing with one another. Some men compete to gain a sense of achievement. One successful futures trader told me that what he fantasizes about is not spending the money he might make, but on making the perfect, the most successful trade. Some men compete in order to maintain their relationships with other men. For both groups of men not to compete, or to compete and lose, is to be wiped out as a person. The fact that they can wipe out huge fortunes at the same time is not important. Nick Leeson wiped out Barings Bank because he didn't want to lose the friendship of the people who worked for him, no matter how incompetent they were.

If we know what our private meanings for money are and we are honest with ourselves we can make sure that they don't override our good sense. Unfortunately, those people who become powerful politicians and dictators are not only unaware of what goes on inside them but they lie to themselves just as easily and frequently as they lie to the people they ought to be protecting. Thus Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia can blame George Soros for Malaysia's economic disaster instead of his own ruinous policies, and ex-President Suharto in Indonesia can claim to be the country's wise and beneficent father while robbing his people of billions.

Only when Patsy and Sam revealed their private meanings for money to one another could they see how different were their attitudes and how important it was that they accepted and respected each other's point of view. Only then could they start to make the necessary compromises.

Australian-born Dorothy Rowe is a psychologist and author of several books. Her latest is The Real Meaning of Money (HarperCollins, 1997).

Psychology

...this little pig stayed at home.

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I've just spent an evening with a friend who regaled me with her latest sexual adventure - or misadventure, rather. (The latter tend to be much more fun.) But, for all her candour, I couldn't imagine her telling me, for example, how much she earned, the extent of her savings or the size of her overdraft. Nor would I dream of asking her. It's... well, it's personal, isn't it? To question her on money matters would be intrusive, almost taboo, while asking her 'How's the love-life?' is just normal.

And yet the mental image I have of money is of something cold, hard, numeric, and above all, impersonal. My money is only my money while I hold it in my hand. It becomes yours once I give it to you. It can't be identified with me. And when I make a 'hard economic decision' I assume that this will probably involve some degree of riding roughshod over personal feelings, as though following money's logic makes us more rational, less emotional creatures.

Frankly these two ideas of money being both personal and taboo and impersonal and rational don't sit together at all happily in my mind. So what does money really mean to us deep down? And if it is so rational why does it provoke people into doing such crazy things?

I think I'll ask a psychologist and see what she has to say.

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