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Reality check—we acknowledge that there are many factors that prevent or make it more difficult for individuals to reach long-term goals. There’s far more to consider than just psychology. However, for this article, I’ll be discussing the psychology behind a hallmark of human behavior—the resistance to meeting long-term goals.

I can open up my Amazon Shopping app on my iPhone and replace my 1-year-old TV by scanning my face and paying with Apple Pay in less time than it does for me to clean the dishes.

But, setting aside a chunk of my paycheck to invest in a 401(k) or IRA for a future hypothetical retirement 40 years from today doesn’t have the same satisfaction that the easy Amazon purchase does. I know logically that the investment in my 401(k) is likely wise, but tying up that cash for use 40 years from now means that I’m potentially delaying more immediate purchases—such as more Amazon purchases, a trip to a nice restaurant this week, or a vacation.

We know that saving for retirement is important—so why is it so hard?

Well, that’s easy. We’re human.

Reason 01—The power of immediate gratification.

In the late 1960s to early 1970s, researchers ran the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in which children were placed in a room with yummy snacks. If they could wait unsupervised for 15 minutes before they ate those snacks, they would get an extra snack as a reward. Revisited studies found that those children who were able to wait longer had better life outcomes as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, and even body mass index (BMI).

Humans are hardwired to favor immediate gratification. Our limbic system is the part of our brain that is involved in our emotional and behavioral responses. When we feel stressed, our limbic system releases cortisol. When we experience pleasure, our limbic system releases dopamine.

Dopamine is the feel-good hormone that is released when we’re doing something that makes us happy—like shopping for the newest Nike shoes or purchasing plane tickets for our tropical vacation.

This dopamine reaction helps explain why, in the moment, it can be extremely difficult for individuals to choose not to do the thing that makes them happy (e.g., purchase new shoes) and instead make an investment for a far-off date (e.g., save for retirement).

When it comes to money, circumstances may heighten this natural feedback loop for some folks. For example, if an individual lives paycheck to paycheck but receives a rare bonus check, the individual may opt to spend that bonus rather than save those extra funds. Because the bonus check is a rare occurrence and the individual is uncertain when they will have another opportunity to splurge, they may be more likely to use the money to make purchases rather than save it.

Unfortunately, even if an individual is able to delay gratification by choosing to save rather than spend, the hurdles aren’t necessarily over. The human psychology has a few more tricks.

Reason 02—Our future selves are strangers.

In 2012, Merrill launched the Face Retirement app. Essentially, users would take a face picture of themselves, and the app would age them, showing the users what they would look like as they aged over a period of time. Next to the picture, users would see data points of how much the cost of living will increase at various ages in the future. Users even had the option to share their aged photos on Facebook.

The goal of the app was to reinforce the idea that we all will age and create a sense of urgency for saving for the future. The app was informed by a study conducted at Stanford, which found that when individuals viewed pictures of themselves progressing in age, they were more likely to consider allocating more to their retirement accounts.

Part of this phenomenon is due to the idea that people don’t understand who their future self is. Our future self is quite literally a stranger to our present-day selves. While the aged photo may be effective in scaring a user to make an initial investment, it’s difficult to draw the conclusion that what the user is feeling is enough to sustain a change of behavior. It may be more likely that the initial increase in saving is more of a one-and-done action versus a repeated behavior.

In reality, it’s difficult for us to conceptualize what our future selves will want or need. As a result, we’re more likely to empathize with our current-day needs and wants—making it doubly difficult to save for a long-term goal way in the future for an unknown human.

Reason 03—Humans are lazy. Naturally, we tend to avoid the complex.

Generally speaking, humans are hardwired to avoid complex or taxing cognitive efforts. Existing research calls the theory the Principle of Least Effort. In short, when faced with an option, humans almost always choose the path with the least effort or resistance. The quickest way to done. The path of least resistance. The fastest route. The easiest solution. You get the drift.

Essentially, humans make a cost-benefit analysis when faced with a task that requires heavy cognitive effort. This behavior is so pronounced that a study done in 2020 showed that humans will trade physical pain to avoid exerting high levels of cognitive effort. (what.the.actual.heck— humans are funny)

Why are we like that? Great question. It goes back to our evolutionary roots. Effort, even cognitive effort, activates our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. It feels bad, so we tend to avoid it.

This is where it gets weird for our finance friends. The finance industry is known for making things incredibly complex. In fact, in the Rebel Journey’s in Money report, 47% of respondents agreed that the industry as a whole is “over-complicated and confusing”. The problem with this is—when people encounter something in finance that they find confusing—they are more likely to disengage entirely. As in, not coming back.

Our (Rebel’s) hunch is that this is tied to an individual’s belief that they can complete the task (read more in the Consumer Journey and the Retirement Reports). So, in terms of long-term financial goals, such as retirement, if a person doesn’t believe they have the ability to save for retirement—they are less likely to put the effort into asking the questions or figuring it out.

Reason 04—We struggle with creating attainable goals. And, retirement feels ambiguous.

For all the reasons listed above, saving for retirement is hard. The act of saving for retirement is delaying gratification elsewhere. The reason for retirement is tied to an older version of ourselves—who we do not understand, and the financial calculation required for creating a retirement savings plan is a cognitive effort—which we’re less likely to engage in.

But, in reality, long-drawn-out goals are often ambiguous in nature and hard in all cases, not just retirement savings. There’s an entire body of psychology that focuses on goal-setting theories. Take New Year's resolutions, for example. The goal “lose weight” is ambiguous, difficult to measure success, and ultimately requires an enormous amount of self-regulation before ever experiencing the satisfying feeling of accomplishment. As a result, by February, most of us will be resigning to our stretchy pants.

Why doesn’t it work? If we know goals, such as losing weight or saving for retirement, are in our best interest and we will be super proud of ourselves once they’re accomplished, why can’t we just do it? Ugh. That’s a loaded question.