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Moneybrain

“Pleasure now is worth more to us than pleasure later,” says economist William Dickens of Northeastern University. “We much prefer current consumption to future consumption. It may even be wired into us.”

…In fact, neuroscientists are mapping the brain’s saving and spending circuits so precisely that they have been able to rev up the saving and disable the spending in some people (in the lab, alas; not at the cash register). The result: people’s preferences switch from spending like a drunken sailor to saving like a child of the Depression. All told, the gray matter responsible for some of our most crucial decisions is finally revealing its secrets. Call it the “moneybrain.”

Psychologists and behavioral economists, meanwhile, are identifying the personality types and other traits that distinguish savers from spenders, showing that people who aren’t good savers are neither stupid nor irrational—but often simply don’t accurately foresee the consequences of not saving. Rewire the brain to find pleasure in future rewards, and you’re on the path to a future you really want.

…Economists are waiting to see how the entitled, indulged children of helicopter parents will behave. On the one hand, many of them have been showered with every conceivable largesse, from private music lessons and pricey soccer camps to the SAT tutoring that got them into a top college. For many of those raised in two-career households, “no” was a word they seldom heard from their parents, so eager were Mom and Dad to compensate for their lack of quantity time by providing quality time—and experiences and stuff—instead. Even if they are inclined to save, they’re facing real obstacles: many emerged from college with significantly more student-loan debt than those who came before them and are entering a job market getting weaker by the month.

Science has yet to identify whether the brains of the Twitter generation are any different from the rest of ours, but today’s culture of one-click shopping and instant messaging doesn’t merely satisfy our desire for instant gratification, it encourages it. “If you grow up in an environment marked by such short time horizons, of course you’re going to satisfy your desires as quickly as you can,” says Virginia Tech’s Bickel. “Unless you’re trained to control your impulses, why would you? Instant gratification is fun, and that’s what today’s technology is teaching us.” What life teaches us, however, is another matter. Five years after she graduated, Hannah Green admits that, although she loved NYU, maybe she should have accepted that $100,000 from her father instead.

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