Personal Finance

Afflicted With Allelomimesis — Why People Behave as if They’re Broke When They’re Not

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We’re in a recession, and for the small percentage of people who’ve
lost their job as a result, it’s been tough. But for everyone else with
a steady paycheck, it’s business as usual, right?

Well, not exactly. The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald wrote a piece titled “When You’re Flush, But Acting Flat Broke
about people who are doing fine, financially, but are still cutting
back on their household budgets. What causes this kind of behavior?

One woman in the story, Denise Kimberlin, is a government contractor.
And even though she and her husband (also a contractor) recently got
raises, they’ve lopped off over $1000 from their monthly budget. She
said that after hearing stories about other people’s hardship she
wonders, “What if?”

Kimberlin is imagining herself being in the same unfortunate situation
as people who lost jobs and houses, and even though she isn’t in
financial trouble, she’s acting like her neighbors who are. The
scientific term for imitating your neighbors is called allelomimesis.
It’s a behavior common to all social animals, from penguins to people.
(Example: When you’re flying in a plane and it hits bad turbulence, you
probably look at the other passengers to see if they have calm or
panicked expressions, which either calms or panics you.)

Rosenwald’s well-researched piece is filled with good insights and
information about the phenomenon of phantom poverty. It’s well-worth

Mark Frauenfelder – Mark is the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and the founder of the popular Boing Boing weblog. He was an editor at Wired from 1993-1998, and the founding editor of Wired Online.

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