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  • Arnie Benn

Money & Our Survival Instinct

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

(Appeared as a guest-post on on June 16, 2022.)

"The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” — Vidal Sassoon

Just like animals have to compete for their survival in the wild, and must hunt in order to eat, we humans must compete for money in the job market. The money we earn is the resource we use to live. There is no such thing as a free lunch in nature, for humans or for animals. In the wild, when one organism eats, another organism dies. In human society, for one person to earn, another has to spend.

For us vulnerable and mortal human beings, money represents safety in our world of limited resources because it represents the power to get essential resources and to reinforce our security. Those who have more money will feel more safe and those who have less money will feel less safe and will crave having more money. This craving is enough to cause some people to violate their principles and values without too much extra leverage. Some will lie, cheat, steal, and even commit fraud, identity theft, extortion, or violent crimes to get other people’s money.


Why do so many smart people do unwise things with their money? We all like to believe we are a lot smarter than animals. The basic principles of finance are quite easy to understand, and most people recognize them as common sense: We should budget, save, invest for the future (based on research rather than guessing or hearsay), and diversify our investments so that all of our eggs are not in one basket. If most of us know this, though, why are so many of us so bad with money? Why are Americans so in debt, as a society?

Some may argue that they were never taught the basics of money when they were growing up, which is an ok excuse… up to a point. It’s common wisdom to realize that we have to manage our money. As children, we all heard the story of the lazy squirrel who didn’t want to store up food for the winter. When winter arrived, he had no supplies and he had no choice but to be a burden on the generosity of his friends. So, if it’s that obvious, why do so many live from paycheck to paycheck? Why do so many neglect to save or invest for their future?

The answers lie in the fact that we all use money the way we use everything else — instinctively and emotionally instead of intelligently. While we may be capable of logic and reason, that does not mean we actually use our logic and reason to make smart decisions. Instead, we instinctively make the decisions that make us feel the most safe. We do what is comforting, not what is wise.


"Friendship is like money, easier made than kept.” — Samuel Butler

Handling money emotionally — doing what is comforting — leads to bad money management and bad financial decisions. These are often motivated by things like:

  • Immediate Gratification: When a negative emotion emerges from our inner vulnerability, we need to soothe it with a pleasure fix. In the case of money, buying things makes us feel empowered and protected, and therefore, safe. Buying something pleasurable or fun can make us feel good, which also makes us feel safe. Many mistake this feeling of safety for happiness. This means that when we want some desirable item, we may have a difficult time depriving ourselves in the moment because spending will make us feel better. We easily rationalize that it’s reasonable to spend, and even to go into debt, in order to achieve this illusory sense of safety. We sometimes even spend to show how successful we are… even if we are not.

  • Avoidance: Whenever the human animal is faced with something new or unfamiliar, its natural propensity is not to be neutral but to suspect it, dislike it, or avoid it. This can apply to the entire concept of investing or to a specific investment. For example, when Bitcoin first emerged as a new economic entity — a digital cryptocurrency — many either simply ignored it or dismissed it as something spurious, dangerous, or illegal. Resisting something in the beginning then tends to make us continue resisting it in order to validate that our first, reactionary position was justified.

  • Denial: If we are not preparing adequately for the future by putting money away and investing, we ignore that problem and the hard corrective work it demands in the hopes that it will go away and not get in the way of us spending now in order to feel good. Maybe we believe that some financial windfall will happen in the future, or that there will be time to pay off our debt and begin saving later, so we don’t have to worry about it now. We continue enjoying our immediate gratifications, and the hole we are digging just keeps getting deeper.

  • Lack Of Discipline: If we are not used to saving, budgeting, and working according to a plan, it also means that we have not developed healthy money habits. This is important because our habits determine our reality far more than our knowledge. We then lack not only financial stability but also the skills to reach it. This lacking is, of course, reversible.

  • Lack Of Struggle: If we have had a life of relative ease, without needing to struggle, fight, or even work to get what we need, we may not have developed the skills to effectively fend for ourselves if or when the need arises. Like the bed-ridden patient whose muscles atrophy from lack of use, our drive to succeed and our work ethic are only strong to the extent that we have exercised them. Rich parents who are also wise understand this, and they make sure that their children learn to appreciate what it means to earn something.

The wise will always remember that the drive to make lots of money is directly related to our survival instinct and its vain flight from vulnerability and fear. On the other hand, the drive to be financially responsible in order to survive in relative comfort, although also instinctive, is pragmatic, sensible, and necessary in a world of limited resources. But while the need is instinctive, it is possible to make money honestly and use it for great good. Our character is revealed in the way that we make our money, as well as in what we choose to do with it.

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