5 Bizarre Ways the Human Brain Is Dooming the Economy
When the economy goes bad, we all want to blame somebody else, from politicians to banks to shape-shifting alien reptiles. And while much of that finger pointing may be justified (except for the reptiles thing), the problem comes down to how all of us are wired. Remember, what we all think of as a "normal" human life -- education, career, finances -- is in fact a very recent invention.
And when we try to wrap our hunter-gatherer brains around concepts like student loan interest rates and year-end bonuses, it starts misfiring in all sorts of ridiculous ways ...
Fear of a Bad Economy Makes Us Worse Employees
We've spent a lot of time as a species evolving to respond to bear attacks. Our fight-or-flight response gives us a burst of energy that we use to either scamper away at Mach 30 or punch that bear right in its stupid face. But times have changed: These days, most of us are in less danger of a bear attack than we are of getting laid off, so what physiological response have we evolved for that? Not a great one: Basically, we just get shitty at everything.
"I could've sworn I knew how to do this yesterday."
While our reaction to physical danger is to hulk out and kick-punch our problems away, our reaction to constant, looming money danger is to be less sure of ourselves, less aggressive, and less good at everything we do. We basically shut down, which isn't just bad for ourselves, it's bad for everyone: A tired, dejected workforce isn't exactly the shot in the arm an ailing economy needs. Right now, about half of all workers are too stressed at work to do a good job, and American businesses are losing $300 billion every year to this kind of self-conscious worrywart bullshit.
You have to be pretty sad to mope through the entire GDP of Norway.
But it's not just the economy: Whenever the tax season rolls around, or literally anything bad to do with money happens at all, the stress kills our productivity. It's a system that is really good at punishing failure, but, as a result, really bad at encouraging you to try something new (like, say, leaving your job to go back to college or starting your own business). We won't branch out and take risks until "the economy" improves, but "the economy" doesn't improve until people branch out and take risks.
Both sides represent a swift kick in the financial ass.
In other words, as a species, we just can't take the pressure of this system we ourselves designed (so our economy is basically a really passive-aggressive Skynet). But regardless of how the economy goes ...
Most Employees Don't Care About Their Jobs (and Many Try to Sabotage Them)
Even in a perfectly functioning system, not everyone is going to love their job -- the world needs more call center techs than dog sitters. But the actual numbers for today's job market are startling -- a Gallup poll says that 70 percent of you care nothing about your job, and a mind-boggling 1 in 5 of you hate it so much, you're actively trying to sabotage your company.
It starts with not refilling the pot; it ends with a bomb.
The way Gallup phrased it was that workers were either "not engaged" (didn't give much of a shit about the quality of their work) or "actively disengaged" (actually trying to undermine the work that others were doing). Yes, suddenly so many things about your office -- or your most recent encounter with customer service -- make perfect sense. That's a fifth of all workers who are looking through the company refrigerator trying to work out whose lunch to pee on first.
Just another reason to never leave an open Mountain Dew unattended.
And before you go making a bunch of assumptions about who these dead weight employees are, keep this in mind: The survey shows that the people with all the advantages are also the most miserable, since highly educated young men are statistically the least committed to their employer. Part of that is stuff we've already explained: People are under the impression that college guarantees them a good job instead of just guaranteeing them the opportunity for a good job. When they learn the truth, they feel cheated and decide that the best revenge is to do awful work.
"Your cable went out? Probably demons. Pour some holy water in the box and you're golden."
And this isn't new. We can try to blame the recession or any number of things that might have led to a drop in workers' morale, but the truth is that Gallup runs this poll annually, and since 2003 the results have been exactly the same -- only 30 percent of workers in America like their job. As a society, we're just terrible at A) plugging the right people into the job they're meant for and B) making sure they grow up with realistic expectations of the world.
So the good news is that you're not alone. The bad news is ... well, you're not alone.
Money Destroys Creativity
Here's a fact that flies in the face of everything you think you know about capitalism: The more money you stand to earn from a job, the more you suck at that job.
At least if the job requires any kind of creative thought and problem-solving. Studies show that, if your job is to enter piles of records into a database or wax floors, cash bonuses do make you work faster. But if your job is to invent a new type of database or come up with a creative way to improve floor wax, the promise of more money only clogs up your brain.
"I'M RICH! Now, what button makes the compu-thingy turn on again?"
Just think about how many of the greatest innovations of the recent past have been given away for free. Linux was developed for free and now powers 1 in 4 corporate servers and Fortune 500 companies around the world. Wikipedia is one of the greatest sources of information in human history, and the people who've written and edited all that content have done so for free.
All the hours will be worth it when absolutely no one sees the "about" page.
Now, there are CEOs everywhere reading this (they all read Cracked, right?), rubbing their hands together and saying, "Yes! Finally I have scientific proof that my creative workers function better in poverty! Anderson, cancel everyone's bonuses!" But obviously that's not the answer. Remember what we said above about how people stop taking risks when money is tight?
Well, the people who are able to create tons of great things in their spare time do it because they're thinking about the project and not about the money. Put them in a position of financial desperation, and you get distracted people so scared of not getting the bonus that they won't do anything too crazy (or innovative). No, what you need are people who aren't worried about money either way. You do this by, instead of promising them a bonus for results, just giving them the money up front.
"I can't be creative until I've bought some paint and a shit-ton of absinthe."
Again, this doesn't work in low-level jobs -- if you want the average human to work extra hard at the machine that injects Twinkie filling, you usually need to promise them a reward for going the extra mile. But at higher level jobs where workers are more autonomous and have to be creative with their solutions, pay them well and let them do their thing. What motivates us from that point are more abstract things like greater autonomy, self-improvement, and creating awesome things we can show off to the world.
Fear of the Elderly Causes Stupid Personnel Decisions
Experience can make a big difference, so it should come as no surprise that, according to multiple studies, older workers (aged 60 to 74) are more productive, are more loyal, and make more money than their younger counterparts. Which, frankly, is great news, because it means the best years of your life aren't behind you no matter how great that last trip to Burning Man was.
Although public sex under a 20-story pyre is a young person's game, so don't procrastinate.
The bad news is that employers don't actually believe this. That's why ageism is a thing. The idea that old people are all basically Abraham Simpson leads to the assumption that they are slow, feeble-minded, and nothing but a drain on productivity.
"You may have the experience for this job, but unless you get nostalgic at BuzzFeed lists, you're out."
So when it comes time for a business to make cuts, the first people to go are the older workers, because hell, they're old, and no matter what science says, conventional wisdom says that young blood has more energy. The result is that older workers are hit hardest by the recession: They're more likely to lose their job and tend to stay unemployed for longer afterward, despite the fact that they are literally the most valuable people in the room.
"OK, new office hierarchy: Greg, Janice, the janitor, the coffee pot, and, last, Cue Ball over here."
Why? Because we have evolved to be afraid of old people. The elderly remind us of our own mortality, just like setting an alarm clock reminds us that we'll have to go to work in the morning. Human beings tend to be self-centered, you may have noticed, so when we see an old person, our first instinct isn't to wonder about their experience and wisdom but to be reminded of the fact that we're gonna get old, too. And no manager wants some creaky old people to be the face of the company. They want young, vibrant bodies in those cubicles! "Go stand inside the door at Walmart, Grandpa! Your 45 years of sales experience is of no use to this struggling economy!"
Hormones Drive the Stock Market (Always for the Worse)
Most people think of the stock market as a strange, almost supernatural entity controlled by under-the-table deals and secret psychopaths, and they're right. But it's even stupider than that: Men are ruining the economy with their stupid, stupid hormones.
We just figured the downturning economy was the fault of figurative dicks.
Like every other gambler, the people who work the market floor are slaves to their emotions: When things go well, their brains are flooded with testosterone, which makes them want to take more risks. When things go badly, their brains produce cortisol instead, which makes them less likely to take chances. The problem is, these things only "balance out" in the same way that stomping on your car's accelerator and brake at the same time will technically "keep it parked" -- over time, stock traders' brains burn out and they go nuts. And yes, there's a reason we said "men" up there -- it's significantly worse for males than females.
"Stock prices? Sir, this is a graph of your neurological chemistry."
What ends up happening is that these emotional responses (again, evolved specifically to fight tigers and stuff) can actually exacerbate economic problems. When the market starts to crash, traders' burned-out brains will be flooded with cortisol, which will make them overly cautious, which prevents change and makes the market keep crashing. Testosterone, meanwhile, exacerbates the market's upward momentum, causing reckless behavior and dumb risks that -- you guessed it -- also result in a crash.
"I'm on a roll this week! Let's roll the dice and see if Myspace makes a comeback!"
So again we find that the squishy gray hardware that runs human behavior just plain isn't up to the task of functioning in a 21st century economy. Has there ever been a better argument for handing our whole economy over to unfeeling robots? We can risk the whole Matrix thing.
Related Reading: Your silly brain probably believes some pretty hilarious myths about the economy. Did you think China was on the verge of owning our asses? Well you're wrong. Don't get too optimistic though. Our belief in hell has a HUGE impact on the world economy. It's enough to make you want to give up, trust Jack Balkin and mint some trillion dollar coins.