Imagine you're in a new city and looking for a restaurant. There are two next to each other: one is full and the other one is empty.
So, where will you eat?
The answer seems obvious: most of us would to the restaurant where other people are eating. Not a very exciting psychology experiment, I know.
But we don't just follow others' leads when it comes to picking places to eat. It turns out that our tendency to "fit in" can even correlate with our financial decisions -- people who struggle to manage debt also tend to have more positive opinions about the general use of debt.
Luckily, though, there are ways to turn things around.
We are deeply influenced by social norms
Our tendency to fit in with norms is a lively area of study for psychologists.
For example, one clever experiment got hotel guests to reuse their towels simply by putting a sign in their bathroom. What did it say? Only that the "majority of guests" tend to reuse their towels.
In the U.K., a pilot program to collect late tax payments used a collections letter which explained that the vast majority of British residents pay their taxes on time. Compared to the letter that was going out before, which threatened legal action, response rates improved by 15%.
In perhaps the best example, the once little-known NordicTrack exercise machine became a best-seller with one simple change to the classic "operators are standing by!" line. The new pitch? "If operators are busy, please call again."
One change, and the NordicTrack became a best-seller.
Our perceptions about what is normal debt can hurt us
It turns out that we do a very similar thing with debt.
Looking at a huge survey of nearly 6,500 Americans, one researcher has uncovered something interesting: people who have a poor credit history are more likely to have positive opinions about borrowing.
For example, they are much more likely to think that it's a "good idea" for people to buy things on credit, and consistently affirm that it's alright for "someone like [myself]" to borrow for various kinds of purchases -- much more so than those who don't have problems managing their credit.
In other words, in the minds of surveyed people with credit history problems, it's the norm to borrow, and it's perfectly acceptable to do so.
Considering the positive opinion and the subsequent payment struggles, it's not hard to imagine how this positive outlook about debt could be part of the problem.
After all, if I think everyone else uses their credit cards for everything, then how is it bad if I do the same? Especially in an environment where you also feel pressured to have what those around you have, whether it's a new car, nice vacations, or an expensive lifestyle, it can be hard to resist.
The key: Use social norms to your advantage
So, how do you override the cycle and turn social norms to your advantage?
First, seek out the people around you who don't view debt positively and who tend to save or otherwise live more frugally. The more you pay attention to that friend of yours who drives an older car or hang out with family members who prefer to make dinner at home than go out, the more "normal" a modest lifestyle will seem.
Of course, this doesn't mean you have to abandon your friends and loved ones -- just add some new data to your world to help you change your norms.
You can also find one of the myriad frugal-living or debt-reducing communities online. There are countless fantastic blogs and writers who tackle these subjects. With a little research, you can find the articles you like, learn about how others succeeded in gaining control over their finances, and retool your perception of what is a normal way of spending money.
Helping yourself to reimagine your values as preferring not to buy on credit and not carry balances will make it a lot easier to find the motivation to get your finances under control. And that is likely to make you much, much happier.
And anyway, everyone else is doing it. How bad can it be?