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Sense Processing: Why Our Brains Struggle with Credit Cards

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, many of us are ready to make some purchases with credit cards in hand. But, by nature, our brains struggle to fully grasp the concept of credit.

Posted: Nov. 29, 2017 7:28 AM

(CLEVELAND CLINIC)--With the holiday shopping season in full swing, many of us are ready to make some purchases with credit cards in hand.

But before we swipe away, Scott Bea, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinic, explains why, by nature, our brains struggle to fully grasp the concept of credit.

"We make these exchanges with credit cards now with an illusion," said Dr. Bea. "It's not like we're giving anything away at all. Somewhere our brain knows we have to pay for it, but it gets harder to actually pay for something once we've consumed it."

Dr. Bea said the reason why it's hard for many people to be responsible with credit is 'sense processing' – in other words, the ability of the human brain to make 'sense' of things by using the five senses.

He said historically, it was used in trades and barters where we had a very real sense of what we were trading for, but today, those lines can be more easily blurred.

"In the old days when we exchanged something our brains would actually feel that," said Dr. Bea. "We had to give something up; we have a sense of separation or a loss, even if momentary and temporary. Nowadays, there's no sense of loss at all - it's in your 'online' cart - you pay for it with the click of a mouse. There's no attachment to the true loss or the feeling of loss."

Dr. Bea said the more we become removed from real symbols of money, the easier it is for us to part with something without a second thought.

He said it's very similar to what happens in a casino when people are handed chips instead of real money. The more they become separated from the actual tangible money, the easier it is to get into trouble.

Likewise, when we swipe a card or click a button on a mouse to make a purchase, our brain struggles to calculate the true cost because we're not physically handing something away. When the bill comes in the mail, Dr. Bea said we're so far removed from the actual activity that it doesn't register in our brains.

Dr. Bea believes that if we can be more conscious of what's really going on - that there really is an exchange being made - the better off we're going to be.

"It would be a good idea to have a habit - anytime we pay for something - to take a moment, right then and there, and note it in a ledger," said Dr. Bea. "Any kind of physical act that would stimulate our sense."

Dr. Bea recommends keeping a record of every expense. He admits it's not easy to do, because it involves creating a new habit, which can take up to 63 days for it to stick. But he said once the habit is created, it can help us make better judgments about how we use credit.

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