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sarah hampson's currency

I'm not sure exactly when it was that I first found myself mesmerized by Suze Orman. She had written one book when I first came across her - You've Earned It: Don't Lose it. And she was on CNBC, where she still has a program, answering callers' questions about their money issues. But the financial expert hadn't yet made it onto Oprah. And CNN wasn't calling her up at every moment to hear her take on money, the same way they do Deepak Chopra when they need an opinion about spirituality.

But she talked about money issues like they were sexual problems - tangled, confusing, and slightly taboo. Everything was demystified. Ms. Orman was talking about money in a way I had never heard anyone do before - she was delving into the psychology of it: why we spend the way we do, how we control others with it, and how our childhood affected our attitude toward it.

Forget the sexual awakening of the sixties. This was the financial awakening of the nineties.

But I have moments when I feel that a little ignorance about my motives for wanting to buy something would be a good thing. This may sound irresponsible, but I'd like to go back to unconscious non-aware buying. It's akin to sixties-era sex before the threat of scary sexually transmitted diseases. You did it because you wanted to. You didn't stop and think very much. Free love. And free spending indulgences?

At this rate, I can self-diagnose every impulse, thanks to all the information out there. I buy something I don't really need and I immediately know it has something to do with: a) denial of credit-card debt; b) feeling of entitlement I probably don't deserve even though I think I do; c) compensation for disappointment over a work-related issue; or d) maybe-short-lived euphoria over my rocking love life.

Geez, can't you buy a sweater just for the sake of the sweater any more?

Uh, no - or so it seems.

We now live in a world where people are encouraging us to let all our financial psychology hang out - confess your debt load, admit your unfounded fear of becoming a bag lady, mine your childhood for repressed feelings about money and understand the world through the lens of behavioural economics. By the early 2000s, stores started to fill with popular books that helped us to see the underlying reality of economic decision-making. ( Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner came out the same year, 2005, as Tim Harford's popular The Underground Economist.) By the time Oprah invited Ms. Orman to put her 2007 bestseller Women and Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny on her website for 33 hours in 2008, one million people were happy to download it.

The field of behavioural economics - which, broadly speaking, comprises consumer psychology about money - got its academic start in 1979, according to many experts. That's when Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University, and the late Amos Tversky co-authored an influential paper called "Prospect Theory."

"That paper showed that there are very minor things that make people change their minds even though the facts are the same," explains Nina Mazar, a behavioural economist and assistant professor in marketing at the Rotman School at the University of Toronto. "Economists often make assumptions with models that hypothesize that we are very logical and consistent with how we make decisions."

And that, dear reader, is what brings me to a complaint that perhaps you share about all this money shrink business.

Who cares?

When I look through the pile of studies I keep on the subject of behavioural economics and consumer psychology, I can get a little overwhelmed.

"If you're sad and shopping, watch your wallet," warns one report on a study that showed people's spending judgment disappears when they're depressed. Another report tells us that when we're elated, we make poor purchasing decisions. Other studies explain that the brain lights up when human beings look at shiny, new objects. We're like crows, I guess.

But how helpful is that to know? Are we expected to self-palpate emotionally before we head to the mall?

Are we determined to strip the world of meaningless pleasures?

I asked Ms. Mazar what she thought the point of behavioural economics was. Does it help the consumer gain insight into himself, or really is it for the marketers so they can exploit the human-as-crow who's attracted to baubles? Is it just a profoundly ironic exercise, in other words? Or does it explain why we spend money so companies can figure out how to get us to do more of it? It's a wonder stores don't screen tearful movies on large TV screens in their aisles now that they know we tend to spend when sad.

"Marketers could apply some of the findings of these papers, " Ms. Mazar allowed. "But where the big opportunity lies in academic behavioural economics is to use it to give some perspective on social policy about health care, for instance, or helping people save more for their retirement or on welfare issues."

Okay. But the best explanation for the popularity of behavioural economics, and its true purpose, comes from Mr. Harford.

"There's a very simple reason that academics started writing about money," says the author and columnist with The Financial Times in London. "They realized there was money to be made."

I think Ms. Orman would agree with that. She has a made a fortune by telling others how not to spend their pennies.