Money On the Brain: What Drives You to Systemize?

The world of personal finance is filled with people obsessively driven to systemize. Listen to almost any financial independence podcast, and you are bound to hear the word “system” numerous times as the hosts and guests refer to routines and habits used to maximize their efficiency with money.  

Furthermore, countless personal finance blogs are packed full of systemizing behaviors without even labeling those behaviors as such.

We casually throw around the word “system,” but have you ever stopped to think deeply about what it means to be an adept systemizer?  

Would you be excited to realize there are several interesting studies and a psychological theory devoted to studying systemizing? 

Your Drive to Systemize

It is very insightful to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of this personality trait.

In fact, I have formally studied systemizing in-depth (and I hope to do it again). Resulting key understandings have enormously impacted my mental health and relationships for the better.  

While math and numbers lend themselves most easily to systemizing (from engineering to calories and exercise), systems can easily be seen in more abstract structures (like poems, songs, mosaics, and anything where multiple parts need to work together to form a whole).

Regardless of where you use your systemizing capabilities, I have learned that self-awareness can help you have a healthy relationship with this trait (whether you are creative, into money, or both).

Systemizing 101

Systemizing is defined as an individual’s internal drive to decipher rule-based systems, manipulate variables in those systems, and predict or control system outcomes.  

It’s not hard to see why a lot of people in the FI community are excellent systemizers.  A budget is an input and output system with a lot of variables to tweak and daydream about.  Beyond the lifestyle options, many people may be drawn to FI because they actually enjoy the numbers and tasks that come with such an audacious pursuit.

In neuroscience, systemizing is theorized to be on the opposite end of a continuum with empathy.  It is currently assumed regional gray matter in the brain competes for these two processes.

For the sake of this discussion, empathy is defined as an internal motivation to understand other peoples’ thoughts and emotions and reciprocate with appropriate responses.  

In short, empathy is a process in the brain concerned with predicting the behavior of others while systemizing is a process in the brain interested in predicting and solving problems in systems.  They compete and the result is your personality.

What Does This Mean For You?

This is the point in the discussion where relationships and mental health enter full-force for all of us spread-sheet-pie-graphing aficionados to contemplate.

There is no doubt in my mind the personal finance community is full of very empathetic people.  However, there is a lot to unpack in order to fully grasp the complexity of this information (and how many of us probably prefer systemizing).

According to research, systemizing and empathizing are on a continuum in the brain arising because of different concepts of truth where concrete reality versus subjective internal experiences.  There is a push by some researchers to use the Empathizing and Systemizing Model of the brain to increase awareness in therapists regarding mild autistic traits in certain anxiety-ridden individuals.

PAUSE: No One is Calling Anyone Autistic 

I know not to joke about such things. 

According to research, the absolute truth and rule-based cognitive style of many individuals with autism may be at the root of their many social struggles.  

People not formally identified with autism may exhibit these struggles as well. Therefore, when low-level autistic traits are present in an individual, these may be the root cause of another manifested condition or personal struggle (for me, it was anorexia).  My brain manages money and food in a very similar way.  I switched my focus to money, and life is much better now (understatement of the year).

Consequently, my aim is to raise awareness of the E-S Model so it can be used for further research. I also think it can be applied in a variety of settings, whether formal therapy or book clubs using bibliotherapy.

Are You an Extreme Systemizer?

A quick test can help you answer this question. Would you like to find out and be part of a study? You can take it for your own insight, but if you could please send me a screenshot of your results, you can help me gather some data for an independent study worth conducting.

Here is a link to the test.

Please send your results in a screenshot to savvyhistory@gmail.com

All results will be kept anonymous.

The types of scores resulting from this survey range from 0-54 for empathizing and 0-56 for systemizing. Different numeric thresholds assign you to different locations on a graph where these two scores come together. Five brain-types are inferred depending on where your point is on the graph. Individuals can be balanced between systemizing and empathizing (Type B), lean towards empathizing (Type E) or lean towards systemizing (Type S). Other results include extreme empathizing (Extreme E) and extreme systemizing (Extreme S).

The EQ and SQ brain-types are a beneficial method for describing major and minor differences in overall behavior.

As I study the role of systemizing in the lives of those who pursue financial independence, I also hope to include some interviews on this site in order to learn about the role of creativity in mastering money and mental wellness. 

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