[From the hopefully soon upcoming book Recovering Wealthy - a guide to money management for people with addiction (and everyone else)]
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path –AA
I could publish the directions in the newspaper and people would still not follow them – Richard Dennis, famous commodity trader
Addicts as a group are not fond of following directions even when those directions are manifestly safer or wiser than their own plan. In recovery and in dealing with money we want success our way. When our way leads to misery or poverty we wonder what went wrong with the world.
We look out at other people who seem to be handling things their own way with success and we wonder why the world is treating them better. Why do they get the breaks? Why are they lucky? And finally, why are we being treated so badly? It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with our decisions, could it?
Like with a drug, dealing with money inspires dreams in us. We look forward to the day when we are financially independent and the sooner the better. The pot at the end of the rainbow glows with a brightness beyond gold. It’s that brightness that blinds us to a reality of money management: risk. Under the influence of expectation of getting our heart’s desire, we are not likely to fully appreciate the pitfalls along the way.
This is not news to anyone in recovery. Your sponsor has told you all this (and if you don’t have a sponsor, close this blog, go to a meeting and get one now). You’ve heard all the 12 step slogans that derive from this reality. What is new is this: scientists agree with you.
In a recent experiment scientists studied methamphetamine dependent people and non-addicted controls and asked them all to play a special game of cards in which they flipped over cards in the order they were in the deck. The game had four decks. The first deck was set up in such a way that the rewarding cards were big rewards, the losing cards were big losses and by the end of the deck the player was in a deep hole. The second deck was the same as the first. The third and forth deck were set up so that the gains were small, the losses small, and by the end of the deck the player was a little ahead.
It probably won’t surprise you when I say the addicted subjects played more of the first two decks and lost more money while the non-addicted subjects stopped playing the first two decks when they got scared and tended to end up a little ahead.
What’s really amazing is that they measured the subjects’ brain metabolism while they were playing, basically making a colored map of each subject’s brain to show which areas were turned on and which were turned off. They found the non-addicted subjects used their more advanced, more uniquely human, frontal cortex while the addicts made their decisions with their evolutionarily older emotional centers.
So does this mean that addicts can’t make reasoned decisions? Should everyone with the disease of addiction just turn over all their money to a custodian and be dependent for the rest of their lives? I don’t think so.
What the study tells me is that in the absence of sufficient midbrain dopamine tone, the more advanced frontal centers don’t work right. One might be tempted to ask why that is, or better yet, why such a response would still be in the gene pool. The answer may be in what low midbrain dopamine means when it’s not found in an addicted person. Low dopamine is a famine or starvation signal. When we’re starving, risk is meaningless. We’ll die anyway, so when we see food, we go for it. The problem for the addict is that their brain is in this state all the time.
That means that the person with addiction needs to have a plan, a map if you will. We know that our brains will respond to sudden views of reward as if we’re starving and will never get another chance. It’s like walking through a dark forest. If we stick to the route we’ll be okay. If we’re lured away from the path by a light in the trees, we’re done for. When we make last minute changes we risk leaving the trail with our eyes closed.
So when you hear about a great business deal, remember that your brain, if you’re addicted, will likely respond as if it’s the last opportunity you’ll ever have. That’s why I put that Richard Dennis quote at the top of the page. He made a better with his business partner. Dennis said that he could teach anyone to trade and become rich. He advertised for some people who wanted to participate and trained the ones he picked. The did quite well. His partner told him that his trading rules wouldn’t work if he taught them to other people. Dennis replied with the quote above. He knew that the problem most people have with money is not the plan, but leaving the plan. He knew that he could print the plan like a map and people would still leave it when they saw something they thought looked better. But rarely have we seen anyone fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Staying on the path is paramount.
When we think we have it made, when we think that we can judge risk on the fly, when we think we can just change our investment plan because we see what we think is a better one, we’re leaving the path. We’re likely also leaving our best chance for success, in recovery and in investing.
© Howard C Wetsman MD FASAM