In a non-linear corrupt space

Can we have a relationship with money as we have with many other things? How important is money to make or break a relationship? No one can deny that financial wellness is an important part of our overall well-being. It is also a fact that money is the leading cause of stress for adults. Money triggers several of our emotions (such as anxiety, feeling of elitism). Money encourages competition, envy and corruption. More than the money it is life satisfaction that matters. Additional income does not create a proportionate level of happiness beyond a point. But below a point it matters. What is that point?

Money matters are complicated. More we are clear about our priorities, the better is our relationship with money. Our ‘scarcity mindset’ likes to believe that we are always short of money, even when there is enough. Such mindsets can’t take nor give freely. What they get they think they are getting less. What they give they think they are giving more. The cycle of give and take says, unless you will give you will not receive. People with ‘abundance mentality’ can give and receive freely. I was unhappy that I got only one rupee per week as pocket money, instead of ten rupees. If I had got ten rupees I would not have understood the difference between want and need. I would not have understood what the freedom from want means. We learn to thank our ‘disappointments’ when we ‘grow’. Money wounds don’t recur less severely if we have suffered such wounds before. Some dreams once denied don’t remain unfulfilled. A time comes for their fulfilment. Inadequate money has always been one of our greatest fears. Money fears deplete our internal resources. This fear is the major cause of imbalance in life’s routine. Despite money we tend not to use it. We often spend more than our pocket allows to keep up a certain appearance. Money, the status symbol, leads us to ruination.

The attitude and perception about money plays a significant role in husband-wife relationships. Financial like-mindedness among the partners increases the understanding, and helps in strengthening the relationship. It is important to know if your spouse is comfortable with money available or is insecure about it. Is your spouse careful or careless about money? In a husband-wife relationship it is important to understand that major financial decisions have to be taken jointly. Unilateral decisions often lead to severe clashes, even if one of them is an earning partner. It should be recognized that arguments are normal in such discussions. It is better to have little argument on what to buy and what is not affordable; what is wasteful and what is useful expenditure. Money space among the partners is an essential component of a husband-wife relationship. It is a good idea to have some money that can be spent without feeling guilty or having to justify it.

Only Ramkrishna could truthfully say that ‘taka maati, maati taka’. I am not as truthful as Ramkrishna was. Money is essential for survival. “Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession: these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.” It is true money making doesn’t appeal to all. It is also a fact that not everyone can make money. To make money, it is said, one must have some amount of stupidity and greed. But it is not always greed, which makes us addicted to money. Addiction for money could be for acquiring status or to compensate for social shortcomings.

Why is money important for us? It is said that money worries are as much about psychology as economics. A rich man doesn’t know what to do with money. A poor man doesn’t know what to do without money. We suffer from ‘money illusion’. We happily accept a 7% rise in a year of 11% inflation, but reject a 4% pay cut in a year of zero inflation. We are seized with ‘loss aversion’. We react more strongly to losses compared to gains. Psychologists say that money makes one weirder and less rational. People get immediate pleasure from obtaining and pain after losing money. Money makes us more self-centred. Generally money-related decisions are more difficult to take. People value money they have earned compared to the money they have inherited. The difficult thing is to resolve the conflict between pursuit of wealth and building and maintaining strong personal relationships. When we keep social norms and market norms on separate paths, life hums along pretty well, but when they collide, trouble sets in. In one of the studies, a neuroeconomist observed that the poor spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on lottery tickets. We can’t ignore money. The important thing to teach the grey matter is to separate the pleasures of purchase from the pains of payment. Those who have zero assets and zero liabilities possibly have such a grey matter.

Can money buy happiness? Daniel Gilbert’s ‘experience-stretching’ hypothesis partly explains the disconnect between money and happiness. Experience-stretching is described as “an experience that once brought me pleasure no longer does.” Money allows us to buy things but it also deprives us from enjoying the mundane joys of life. Money can be a substitute for social acceptance and can reduce social and physical discomforts but it also can take us away from the little pleasures of life. If you want to buy material things, you would need a fixed amount of money. But if you want to buy happiness, your money needs would be relative, because your level of happiness depends upon the earning levels of your neighbours. This relativity trap is not easy to get by. The problem is that we don’t realise and accept that we are making comparisons. We make mistakes while making comparisons. Because of the wrong predictions, we make wrong decisions.

The magnitude of expected rewards governs our motivations and efforts. Our motivations are not always conscious. We don’t often know what has prompted us to do a certain thing. Neuroscience researchers are trying to understand the connection between expected reward and behavioural activation. In one such study, money was used as an incentive. The tools (such as fMRI, skin conductance response and hand-grip force) were used to visualise unconscious motivational processes. Skin conductance response is linked to autonomic sympathetic arousal; the arousal of sympathetic nerves prepares us to deal with fight or flight response. Hand-grip force is a measure of behavioural activation. The studies reveal that a key node (specific basal forebrain region) in the brain circuitry enables rewards to energise behaviour. Interestingly, this doesn’t even need the subjects’ awareness.

The greatest money related ill of our society is corruption. It is a moral decision. Who or what decides our moral decisions? Some think, our unconscious biases decide our moral decisions. There are others who think that the social environment is the dominant factor. Studies indicate that morality is highly influenced by local culture and learning, and that all decision-making processes resulting in outward behaviour are carried out before one becomes consciously aware of them. Moral action is rational action. It is governed by a conception of the way that you ought to act. “To be a moral being is to be capable of being motivated to do what you ought to do because you believe you ought to do it.” It is believed morality is grounded in our biology. We are born with abstract rules or principles that guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems. Some believe, in us, there exists a ‘moral organ’. Some analysts are not so sure if such a moral organ really exists? They say, thus far we have reprogrammed ourselves reading histories, novels, philosophical treatises and ethnographies. These have helped us to update our moral software. Maybe someday in the far future biological hardware will be used for updating our moral software.

It is said that an intelligent and unethical mind is the most disastrous combination. It is also good to know that an intelligent and ethical mind is the most desirable combination. We are generally honest despite the fact that we have resorted to some sort of dishonesty some time or the other. Often we behave dishonestly even when our intentions were not so. Honest minds don’t intentionally misrepresent facts, intentions, or opinions. Honest people don’t get tempted to behave dishonestly. The ‘grace hypothesis of honesty’ says that the decisions of honest people don’t get affected when they get an opportunity to increase their reward by being dishonest. The `will hypothesis’, on the other hand, says that honest behaviour can also result from the intentional resistance of perceived temptation to behave dishonestly. Honesty and intelligence don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Often brilliance and talent are the most dishonest combination. We often become so convinced about the rightness of our own theories that we start believing that we only have the right to be right. We tend to push threatening information away from us, and pull friendly information close to us.

We love to protect our sense of the self. We dislike arguments that try to change our mind and opinion. We like arguments that help us to hold our views (even though wrong). In a strongly competitive environment ambition and vanity sometimes completely outweigh our ethics and sense of fairness. Honesty often is not the best policy as truth hurts. Honesty is shifty. We can be truthful even if what we say is not actually true. We can deceive and mislead others without telling a lie. Keeping quiet when one supposedly should speak is a form of dishonesty. An act of silence that is intended to cause another person to believe something that isn’t true is deception. Our rationality often is the causes of our dishonesty. We want to maximize our payoffs. The higher the reward from being dishonest, the higher is the extent to which we engage ourselves to dishonest means. One way to limit dishonest ways is to restrict benefits of dishonest ways. Daniel Ariely makes an important observation: People tend to be dishonest enough to give themselves an advantage. We try to balance our desire for personal gain with our willingness to be a good person.

We are vulnerable to attack, criticism, temptation. We get easily wounded or hurt. Our vulnerability and susceptibility are subjective and depend upon our cognitive abilities, personality, and our social background. Scientists say, variants of behavioural genes make people more vulnerable to certain moods and behaviours. The ‘upside’ to vulnerability could be an asset, believe some scientists. An alternate vulnerability hypothesis says that bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavourable contexts, but can enhance function in favourable contexts.

Scientists speak about ‘dandelion’ and ‘orchid’ children. Dandelion children are normal, healthy, and “do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden.” Orchid children “wilt if ignored or ill-treated, but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.” The ‘orchid hypothesis’ says, if care is given, an orchid child can become a dandelion child. The orchid hypothesis accepts the proposition that certain gene variants underlie some of the human kind’s most grievous problems, but it also suggests that these troublemakers can play a critical role in our success. So vulnerability has inherent goodness embedded in it. The wise advise us not to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability. This is because, once the situation changes, the vulnerable prey is no longer the defenceless prey. The vulnerable prey doesn’t forget what the predator did. He waits for his sunny days to return, and when that happens, he doesn’t lose the opportunity to pounce on the predator. And when a vulnerable acquires power, he is no less ruthless than a monster.

Corruption is one of our major problems. We can no longer afford to be indifferent towards the issue of corruption. To fight corruption, more than structural and legal reforms, moral renovation of the self is necessary. We need to reinvent our moral codes. We need to develop innate values so as to keep us moral even in the most amoral situations. We need to elevate consciousness and to revive spiritual awareness in us. We need to refurbish ourselves with the lessons of trustworthiness, compassion, forbearance, generosity, humility, and courage.

Corruption is generally associated with our moral decadence. Its modus operandi is infinite. It can take the form of misplaced justice, misuse of authority, manipulation of public money, use of unfair means, fabrication of evidence, manipulation of data, use of or provision of banned substances to enhance performance, among others. Motivations for corruption may include economic gain, status, power, sexual gratification. A measure of corruption is highly subjective. It depends on a person’s ethical, moral, cultural and religious beliefs. Depending on the observer’s ethical and moral background, an action is labelled as corrupt. Despite the fact that people’s perception and extent of corruption vary greatly across the world, the general agreement is that corruption damages society, democracy, and economic progress.

We are not born corrupt. We become corrupt. A corrupt wants to win at any cost. He is willing to make any compromise. His overconfidence in his abilities leads him to take unjust, immoral and faulty steps. He becomes impulsive and his thinking is prejudiced by greed. Our prejudices and beliefs are dependent on our family background, childhood experiences, education, social class, and the marketplace. A corrupt mind misuses the fertility of the mind. A fertile and vulnerable mind with no values is the biggest threat to society.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in his studies on dogs observed that they start salivating when they see food, and salivation happen even in the absence of food. The stimulant for the dogs was the lab coat of a person who served the food. Seeing the lab coat the dogs thought that food was on its way. Pavlov received a similar response with ringing bells; the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. Pavlov’s concept of ‘conditioned learning’ says that events that previously had no relation to a given reflex (such as a bell sound) could, through experience, trigger a reflex (salivation). Pavlov’s work suggests that positive reinforcement causes repetition of the behaviour pattern, and also repetition causes the reactions to become more developed over time. Another important offshoot of ‘conditioned learning’, called ‘extinction’, is that an established conditioned response (salivating in the case of the dogs) decreases in intensity if the conditioned stimulus (bell) is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus (food).

Something like Pavlov’s dogs must be happening in the minds of the corrupt. The corrupt become bolder with repeated stimulus. After tasting and liking the ‘blood’, and if he is not caught, a corrupt becomes doubly aggressive the next time. He can do anything (like lying, bribing, killing) to fulfil his desire. If not stopped, he becomes a bloodsucker. The problem is that the stimulus-response behaviour is so spontaneous and subconscious that it escapes the thought process of the corrupt. Pavlov’s dogs tell us that if positive reinforcement works, so do the negative enforcements. One of the positive reinforcements for the corrupt is power to prevail over others. To offset the positive reinforcement one would need negative reinforcement. Disqualification from holding a public office is one of the desirable negative reinforcements. In the ‘corrupt space’, there is a need and hope for fairness. People will abuse power if we let them do so. We need to remind ourselves of our social responsibilities. The least we can do is to identify, isolate, and avoid the corrupt.