It may not be what you know, or even who you know, but who you are that shapes your financial future.
That is the implication of a new study of financial decision making that shows little correlation between financial knowledge and financial health.
The study of over 3,000 people in six different countries finds that a propensity to make wise financial choices is deeply rooted in personality — specifically shaped by a person’s perspective on time.
The study conducted by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo would appear to go against other studies that have boosted the case for financial literacy.
For example, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper concludes that “Overall, financial knowledge does appear to help people invest more profitably; this may provide a rationale for efforts to enhance financial knowledge in the population at large.” That paper also cited previous studies showing that more knowledgeable people accumulate more wealth.
But Zimbardo — an emeritus professor who has written more than 50 books and is best known for the controversial 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment that highlighted the ease with which people assumed roles as victim or victimizer — found that financial knowledge does not strongly predict financial health.
“In other words,” a summary of the study states, “given a high level of acumen, it is not possible to predict people’s financial behavior.”
The study, sponsored by MagnifyMoney, a personal finance site offering side-by-side consumer-oriented comparisons of banking products, measured financial acumen through a test, but also separately assessed people’s perceptions of their financial knowledge.
There, too, high self-ratings for financial acumen did not correlate with good financial decision making; in fact, people who rated themselves as having financial acumen were more likely to be poor financial decision makers.
The one area found to be predictive of good financial decisions was one’s perspective on time, as viewed through a matrix of past-oriented, present-oriented and future-oriented personality types.
Dwelling in the past, as it were, is highly correlated with financial health; those who live in the present are poor financial decision makers; and those who live in the future are not generally financially “healthy” but often succeed at avoiding being financially “sick.”
Symptoms of financial sickness include a propensity to borrow money from payday lenders; file for bankruptcy or experience foreclosure; carry a credit card balance; or ignorance of the interest rate one pays on borrowings.
The reason past-oriented people are financially healthier is that they “base their decisions and actions on memories rather than current experience,” the summary states. People with negative past experiences, and a past orientation, take less risk and thereby avoid financial ruin. On the downside, such people may be more likely to keep their wealth in cash and avoid prudent investment risk, the summary states.