In seminars on Social Security, I often encounter attendees who are determined to see the dark side of every silver lining, and I'm sure you've had similar experiences with clients.

“I’m gonna die young anyway,” they say. Or: “I don’t trust those crooks in Washington.” And there's the ever popular “Social Security is broke.”

Welcome to one of the most formidable obstacles to helping clients plan for Social Security: their own negativity.

Financial advisers have become much more cognizant of the importance of Social Security planning and the real, demonstrable value we can provide by guiding clients in this process. Yet the perceptual filters, personal biases and mental blind spots of clients continue to challenge the most experienced advisers.

For all of their improved expertise, advisers' best efforts to help clients may founder when confronted with these seemingly implacable forces.

Image: Bloomberg
Image: Bloomberg

NEGATIVITY BIAS
Negativity bias is a very common and impactful perceptual filter which affects attitudes and perception. It is the innate tendency to overemphasize negative aspects in our lives.

As described in the seminal 2001 paper, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good”, psychological research has made a compelling case for the widespread influence of negativity in our lives.

We over-react to negative comments, insults stick with us much longer than praise and brain studies show greater activation to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. The English language contains almost twice as many words for negative emotions than for positive or neutral ones. It seems that we are hard-wired to focus on the negative.

Indeed, negativity bias can sabotage the advisers’ best intentions and the client’s best chances of making prudent Social Security planning choices or any other long term financial planning for that matter.

Although negativity appears to be ingrained into our collective DNA it can still be modified to shape a more balanced attitude. One effective method is to suggest your clients use the "3Rs" to recognize, reduce and replace the problem.

Recognition is the lynchpin strategy which underlies the other two.

Begin by simply paying attention to one’s changing mental/emotional experiences during the course of a day, paying particular attention to negativity when it arises. Next, don't judge whether the negative state is warranted or not but simply make a mental note that negative thoughts are occurring. Lastly, make an effort to let go of the mental story or narrative that often accompanies negative thoughts. Those who are particularly keen on this practice can keep a written log of the various occurrences of negativity they experience in the course of a day.

Recognition, by itself, is a powerful antidote to negativity.

The very act of recognizing a negative state of mind immediately dissipates some of the momentum of the current mental feedback loop. Repeat this again and again and long established habits begin to lose some of their power.

Reduction is possible after negativity is identified.

This can be accomplished in different ways. One is to avoid situations, habits or even other people that engender negativity. Obsessive attention to political news, twitter feeds and the like is a very common habit which can reinforce negative thinking. You might encourage certain clients to take an occasional ‘news vacation’ or, perhaps, limit daily consumption of all forms of news and media hype to 10 minutes a day.

Another way to reduce is to intentionally let go of that mental state whenever one notices it. The old chestnut of counting to 10 when you are angry works perfectly well for negativity as well.

Replacing involves replacing a negative state of mind with a positive one.

For instance, when one recognizes a negative state of mind, intentionally bring to mind something positive. This is not a Pollyannaish fantasy that one’s life can magically be happy and trouble-free. It is an intentional practice of re-engineering some unhealthy habits of thinking.

Rather than dwell on a random negative event, perception or idea replace it with a thought about something real that is good and wholesome and makes you feel good. It could be thoughts of a loved one or of a pleasant experience, a meaningful piece of poetry, your personal faith tradition, or the beauty of nature.

There is a growing body of research indicating that developing the habit of gratitude and appreciation for the good things in one’s life or generosity in dealing with others can provide an effective and powerful ballast to negative mental tendencies. This is a bit like consciously reorienting your mind from seeing the glass half empty to half full.

FAR AFIELD? NO.
People strongly in the throes of negativity will often reject replacement out of hand for any number of reasons. For them it is often best to start with recognition and leave replacement as an advanced strategy.

These ideas, of course, are not for every client. For those, however, who seem particularly immersed in negativity yet are open to trying to do something about it, the 3Rs can be an effective approach.

Managing negativity may seem somewhat far afield from Social Security planning. It's not. Experienced advisers know that all of our technical and practical knowledge and guidance is merely blowing in the wind unless we can get clients to engage and activate their better spirits.

Paul Norr

Paul Norr

Paul Norr is a certified financial planner with Bucks County Financial Planning Group in Thousand Oaks, Calif.