Irrational Modern Humans

Americans are not great at saving money. A survey of 4000 adults taken by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in 2013 found that only 48% of respondents would be able to cover an emergency $400 expense without selling something or borrowing money. The survey also found that only 39% of respondents had a “rainy day fund” that could cover three months of expenses. 62% report having less than $1000 in savings, and 30% report having zero savings at all.  Millenials, (adults under 35) have a personal savings rate of -2%, meaning they spend more than they earn.  Having little or no money in savings has a big impact on a household’s stress level, which in turn impacts health and productivity.  

In February of 2016, Willis Towers Watson, a corporate advisory company released a survey of 2000 private sector employees.  20% of those respondents felt that financial stress was having a negative impact on their productivity.  Coming to work with a high stress level can cause what workplace consultants call “presenteeism” - where you’re present at work, but you are functioning well below capacity.  A Time Magazine article cited data from the Willis Towers Watson survey and stated that “Workers who say money concerns keep them from doing their jobs lost 12.4 days due to presenteeism in 2015, and just 3.5 days to absence,” indicating that money concerns have a significantly larger impact on worker productivity than illness, although the same study found that money stresses and illness were also related: Employees who felt worried about their financial situations took an average of 7 days off per year, while those who felt unworried took an average of just 3.

Evolutionary Psychology

Why don’t we save more money, despite there being obvious and rational benefits to doing so? Many of our irrational behaviors can be explained by the Theory of Evolutionary Psychology. According to the theory, our behaviors are based on instincts developed over thousands of generations.  These strong instincts for food, shelter, belonging, and reproduction were beneficial in a hunter-gatherer setting, but can be destructive in today’s modern setting.  With money as a modern proxy for ancient resources, we can quantify the effect of this kind of thinking.  For example, faced with a choice between $100 today, and $110 next week, most people choose the $100 today.  However, when faced with a choice between $100 a year from now, and $110 a year and one more week from now, most people choose the $110.  Many variations on this experiment have shown this effect.  (Koppl, 2004)  Evolutionary Psychology would say that the meal you can have today is worth more than a meal next week.  But a meal 52 weeks from now is not worth much more than one that is 53 weeks away.  This seemingly irrational way of thinking is less ancient than you might think. The proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is still regarded as wisdom. (Koppl, 2004)

Saving money is a long-term goal, and our brains are wired to achieve short-term goals. The idea of sacrificing a small amount of resources today with the intention of accumulating a much larger amount over many years is something completely foreign our instinct-driven ape-brain.  There is no point in saving for next year when you might starve next week, so we might as well buy that $8.00 Starbucks latte today and get those calories now!

“Hacking” Evolution with a game

A well-designed mobile game can help solve this problem.  This game will be a “Town and Fortress builder,” where players use “daily points” to purchase buildings, walls, defense towers, armies to attack other towns, and other genre-appropriate installations.  The amount of daily points awarded will be determined by how little money the household spends each day. The game would start by asking the user(s) to input their average monthly “take home” income. (The amount of money made each month after taxes are withheld. The game will then divide that by 30 to get a number for a household’s daily income.  The game will monitor all spending from the linked bank and credit card accounts, subtract the amount spent that day from the daily income, and use the remainder to generate the number of points that household receives that day.  Each potential upgrade to town buildings, fortress attributes, and army capabilities would have a point cost.  Players can allocate earned daily points toward these upgrades.  This creates an in-game currency that has an inverse relationship with their “real world” currency.  The less they spend in the real world, the more they earn in the game.  The aim is to use intrinsic motivation (building a town/fortress is satisfying and interesting) to turn a player’s long-term goal into daily short term goals - spend less money today, get more points today.

I propose this game connects to a user’s bank account and credit card. (Couples or roommates that share expenses could have linked accounts, and be team members in building their fortress)  There are already secure budgeting mobile apps that have this capability, and these apps currently provide their users with compiled data on their daily and monthly spending habits.  We can take this data a step further and use it to determine a player’s daily award.

Some days, of course, will see large deductions for things like rent or electricity bills.  These deductions would be larger than the daily income figure, and would result in a negative balance for that day.  In the game, however, no penalty would be incurred for overspending - there would only be rewards for spending less.  I have two reasons for this:  Pragmatically, it is not feasible to try to monitor and account for all spending, and the variations that household expenses are subject to.  This is not a budgeting app - it is simply a fun incentive to spend less money on frivolities.  Also, because there are no penalties on days where more money is spent than allotted, this would offer slight encouragement to consolidate large expenditures into the same day of each month - hopefully making the organization of household finances more intentional.

There is already successful precedent for using apps to turn long term goals into daily short-term goals. Exercise, for example, is just like saving money - you make small sacrifices today in time and effort, with the intention that you will have greater health and longevity in the future.  But the Theory of Evolutionary Psychology says that our instinct is to preserve as much energy as we can - don’t burn calories if you don’t have to.  This is a dangerous instinct in today’s calorie-rich environment.  Exercise in the modern age needs to be intentional and disciplined, which is difficult to sustain over time. However, the consistency with which my fitbit-owning parents strive to achieve their “10,000 steps” each day results in occasional funny but revealing moments.  To pass that number, I’ve seen my father take walks late at night before bed, or my mother doggedly pace around the house for no other reason.  There is a fun but not inconsequential competition each day between them, and the first to achieve 10,000 enjoys a minor celebration accompanied by bragging rights.  While silly sometimes, this does result in increased physical activity.  My parents are not alone - fitbit sold almost 11 million devices in 2014. (Dolan, 2015)


The theory-driven goal is to utilize the Intrinsic Motivation inherent in MMORPG-type games. Non-linear narratives, character customization, and small quests (in this case, like achieving a higher armor rank or building that better defense wall) are particularly inherently motivating. (Dickey, 2007)  This motivation, I propose, can help the player achieve their long-term goal of spending less money by breaking it up into daily rewards that help them achieve a short-term goal. (The next armor level for a tower, or an attack bonus for their army, etc)  We can use one theory - Intrinsic Motivation - to “hack” another - Evolutionary Psychology.  


2014. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2013.  

Beth Pinsker, (March 8, 2016) Money Stress Is Totally Killing Your Work Productivity. Retrieved from:

Jonathan Gardner and Minh Tran, (Feb 2016).  Money worries and the workplace – why they matter. Retrieved from

Dolan Brian, (2015) Fitbit files for IPO, sold nearly 11 million fitness devices in 2014. Retrieve from:

Dickey, M. (2007). Game Design and Learning: A Conjectural Analysis of How Massively Multiple Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) Foster Intrinsic Motivation. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(3), 253-273. Retrieved from

Roger Koppl, (2004) Evolutionary Psychology and Economic Theory. Esevier