Today, man sits atop the food chain, picking steak from his teeth with toothpicks made out of more steak. But instead of spraying champagne into one another's eyes while chanting "We're #1!" at zoo animals, we've taken up a new pursuit: getting rich.
The good news is that, despite what 50 Cent may tell you, we generally don't die if we lose. The bad news is, evolution hasn't exactly helped us adapt to this new lifestyle, and as a result your brain continually tells you to do some things that will keep you poor forever.
For instance, your brain...
Back when natural selection stopped picking us off for things like "thought that grizzly bear just wanted a hug," the future was far less reliable. Back then, when you had to choose between eating a rat now or holding out for deer a week from now, your brain told you to make with the rat stew. And it was right! Being able to imagine how good a deer would taste in 100 days had no evolutionary advantage, and so we just never got around to being good at it.
Today, the future is about as predictable as it's ever been. If the government guarantees to pay you $200 when you turn 65, there are laws in place that say they have to do it. But our brains don't know that. So when a guy in a white lab coat walks up and offers to pay us $100 in a year, or $50 right now, our brains still tell us to go for the rat stew.
This is what's called hyperbolic discounting, a scientific term that means your brain is about as far from rational as it can get before they're legally required to keep you in a zoo enclosure. We're only half kidding. Hyperbolic discounting puts us on the level of pigeons and rats in the realms of fiscal responsibility.
It's not just a lab experiment. There are entire industries that rely on your inability to think rationally about the future. Our whole economic crisis was kicked off by borrowers taking on loans they couldn't afford, after lenders offered them lower payments (or no payments at all) for the first year. Credit card companies still rely on your brain to make purchases now that you won't be able to pay for at the end of the month. Top Gun drill sergeants rely on your ego to write checks that your body can't cash.
The real pioneers in the art of hyperbolic discounting are the cigarette companies and drug dealers, who do a pretty swift business delivering a momentary and fleeting fix in exchange for a little cash, and the right to bankrupt or murder you at some point down the line. We're pretty sure not even the pigeons would go for that deal.
But hey, we're nothing if not resourceful, right? Back when your genetic line was sailing around in the man pouch of a hunter gatherer, you only made it through a long winter by making every last deer testicle count. How can that be a bad thing?
Well, that's left us with a brain that's really worried about making sure we don't waste money we've already spent, or as it's known in the field of economics, "money that's not fucking yours anymore."
For instance, let's say you're in the market for a replacement computer, and the best thing for what you want is a $500 PC. However, you've always been a Mac user and recently dropped $600 on a wireless Apple keyboard (yeah, you went with the cheap one). Now, even though you like everything better about the Dell (it comes with its own wireless keyboard that wasn't built for someone with tiny, elf-hands), and it's twice as cheap as the nearest Mac equivalent, your brain will tell you not to waste the money you spent on the keyboard.
So, in the name of not letting the keyboard go to waste, you buy the Mac.
This is what's known as the sunk cost fallacy: a mechanism in your brain that tells you to spend money on something, simply because you've already spent money on it. In the above scenario, if you were a perfectly rational being, you'd realize that the ship has sailed on that $600, and it had every cent of every purchase you've ever made on board. The only thing that should figure into any economic decision is the money and possessions you have in the present tense, and how they can be best used to make your life better in the future.
But thanks to the way your brain is wired, you're likely to go about this exactly backwards: screwing over your future self in order to stay loyal to decisions you made in the past.
But wait a second: Why not just buy the Dell, then go on eBay and sell the useless Mac keyboard? Nothing wrong with that in theory, right? Fits perfectly with the "making your current possessions work for you." But something in you resists the idea. As a result, you're about to get screwed again thanks to the disposition effect.
This is the brain mechanism that tells you to wait for a better price on something that, in reality, will never go up in value. Investors suffer from this all the time; when a stock is losing value, instead of selling it and taking what they can get, they hold onto it. It's not optimism that it's going to go up (they'll do it even if all evidence says it won't) but rather being too pissed off at the idea of selling it for less than they paid.
Of course, this means your brain is much more likely to sell off a good investment, like say that comic book some chump is willing to pay $20 for.
It's the same impulse that makes people hoard useless stuff, unable to grasp the fact that it'll never be useful again. How many of you have cardboard boxes in the garage or basement full of dusty old hard drives and video cards, as if that shit is going to come back in style one day?
Here's another industry profiting off our malfunction: self storage companies. Yep, your brain is apparently perfectly willing to pay $200 a month to store a bunch of useless crap you no longer want or need, instead of just selling it or doing something REALLY tacky, like donating it to charity.
That can is probably dirty anyway
On a similar note, your brain...