Read yet another article of how IRAs, 401(k)s, HSAs, 529s, etc. are benefiting the people who need it the least. These financial products provide tax-free benefits for the minority of people who actually save money. Of course, the need to save for a rainy day has been communicated time and time again and, still, here we are.

There may be more to it than weak people who lack willpower. A of couple years ago, my company sponsored some training on marketing. I’m not going to talk about marketing; rather, something this speaker discussed concerning human physiology. (By the way, it is noteworthy that marketing professionals study human physiology to improve sales… they are “engineering” their approach to exploit our weaknesses.) This speaker mentioned that humans are born with a specific personality trait called “time horizon.” Time horizon describes how far into the future a person is thinking when making decisions. I can’t remember all the details and, besides, I’m certain there are many disagreements with any clinical study. Regardless, the basic concept was that time horizons vary from instantaneous to 50+ years and don’t change as you age. The vast majority of people have short time horizons; furthermore, time horizon is not an indication of intelligence. For instance, think of improv comics.

They have an instantaneous time horizon and are very smart. However, society leans to financial reward and extols those with long time horizons (good things come to those who wait). But many tasks are not suited for long time horizons. If you are having brain surgery, you want a brain surgeon focused on the immediate task rather than thinking about how to improve brain surgery over the next 50 years.

Evolution theorists suggest the distribution of time horizon in the population is such that tribal leaders have long time horizons, which is why there are not many of them. The bulk of the tribe, the implementers, have short time horizons such that they are task-focused. So think about it… the leaders of our corporations and government have a skill which can be used to lead us to a better “state,” but generally use their skill to make themselves extremely wealthy and, in the case of machine automation, undercut the rest of the tribe entirely. And then, to add insult to injury, they imply that it is your fault for living paycheck to paycheck, and if you would just have a long-time horizon you could be like them. (And if you were born them, you would be them.)

This concept of having an innate time horizon, with the majority having a very short one, also explains why our species collectively sucks at risk management. Think about the time horizon for catastrophic climate change… a century. As such, it is not surprising that the majority of the population is more concerned about how avoiding a possible threat decades away affects their immediate job rather than reducing the impact to the earth.

So, it may be in our nature that this human tribe is dependent on a small subset of the population being leaders, and the bulk of the population following orders. Although this perception seems to imply that there’s a fundamental ruling class, such as an aristocracy or a plutocracy, I think having a long-time horizon is only a prerequisite and other personality traits factor into our choice of leaders. Being related to somebody with a long-time horizon, or having demonstrated a long time horizon with financial success, is not the primary indicator of a leader we want. Leadership qualities may be more humble. In particular, humility may be the underlying discriminator. Does a person possessing a trait of long time horizon consider him/herself superior and deserving of wealth and adoration, or does this person consider him/herself a member of the tribe with a job to do in a sense that a custodian in the tribe has a job to clean toilets. The former is more likely to use their position to line their pockets, whereas the latter is focused on the long-term success of the tribe.

— Joe Criscione, UUFH Board President