In 600 BC, King Ayattes of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia — or what we today know as modern-day Turkey — minted the first official currency. This coin, an imperfectly molded circle, featured a roaring lion.
Before that, it was mostly surplus goods, like grain and cattle, that were used to exchange favors and trade time, resources, and wealth between people.
The establishment of currency gave us a way to more accurately measure these trades between us. Technologies, of course, evolved over time. In the 16th century, the use of paper money started to become more commonplace. Early forms of electric transfers were done in the 19th century. The 20th century saw the birth of credit cards, and from there, we have continued this same march forward. But the core feature of currency hasn’t really changed that much since the days of King Ayattes.
We took an object of some kind from the natural world, used an authority to assign a mathematical value to it, with the hope that this object would ensure we could trade things without worrying about being ripped off. A coin or a piece of paper alone is mostly worthless. With this assigned value, with this collective belief in its value, it keeps modern economies running.
Money has allowed us to trust strangers in a way that perhaps no other force in human history has. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what your skin color is, what God you pray to, if you give me a dollar for the work I do, I’ll take it. This is as true for the capitalist as it is for the fervent communist.
It begs an important question: Why has money been so successful where religions, philosophies, and other ideologies have failed to bring us together?
The answer comes down to how well money has been able to domesticate the two core drivers of human behavior: narratives and incentives.
The Mental Grip of Narratives
In the psychological sciences, the mental realm is divided into two parts: cognition and emotion. We can think of the former as those processes in the brain associated with thought and rationality. We can think of the latter as those associated with sensations and feelings.
Much of Western philosophy has been a battleground that tries to define the two as separate, with one coming out on top as being the prime motivator of what we do. But in the messiness of our lives, the two are often intertwined with one another, and the thing that tangles them together are narratives.
We are emotional beings to our core, each of us with our own palate of individual experiences, and we then use thought and language to spin the sum total of those into a sort of story that makes sense of it all by means of a coherent system of consistency. This coherent system is what we think of us our sense of self, the voice in our mind that tells us who we are.
The ideologies of the world, whether they be religious or political or philosophical, are similar stories that make sense of our collective emotions and condense them into a sort of coherent system that allows us to cooperate with one another. Depending on our personal preferences, some of these make more sense to us than others. Some we question because, for some reason, we feel like their rationality breaks down. Others we accept because we feel that they answer our deepest questions and yearnings.
Pretty much all ideologies, all shared narratives, have proponents and opponents — believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, rationalists and empiricists. And this divide is mostly due to the fact that many of them are beliefs in very abstract things that break down when looked at on a different level of abstraction, depending on who is looking.
Money, however, is different. The King, or the state, or whatever authority gives this piece of paper or this coin value generally doesn’t have as blatant of a story to tell us — it’s based on a mathematical system that we all broadly agree works a certain way. Beyond that, there is no belief in this or that. It’s something that is so deeply intuitive to us, so seemingly separated from the power that gives its ideology authority, that we never even question it.
Herein lies the power of the most successful stories: We identify with them without questioning them. And if you can get yourself and other people to identify with something without questioning it, you can make yourself and other people do pretty much anything a human body is capable of.
That said, the power of money goes a step further than that, and that is perhaps also why the story of money itself is so believable and uncontested.
The Physical Force of Incentives
The problem that most stories and most ideologies run into is that, no matter how perfectly crafted they are in writing, sooner or later, when they face the reality of flesh and bone, they break down.
Life is too complex for any single story to entirely monopolize it. One story might work at the highest level of abstraction, another might work somewhere in the middle, but rarely does a story stay uncontested across space and time, at least not in the collective minds of the masses.
Beyond just cognition and emotion, there is also behavioral psychology. And in the realm of behavior, in the day to day drudgery of daily life, we often act relative to the incentives that are offered to us. You work because you love your job and the meaningful story you tell yourself about it, sure, but you also work to make a living that will help you thrive. You keep a certain diet to keep yourself looking a certain way, but at its core, you eat and you feed yourself, first and foremost, because if you didn’t, you’d simply die.
Not only is the story of money so subtle as to be uncontested, but it also perfectly aligns with all of our material and physical incentives. It mathematically measures wealth and resources, both of which are directly tied to our livelihood, things that we can’t survive without.
At the end of the day, humans are nothing more than civilized animals. Our stories, and our moralities, and our philosophies, and our beliefs may provide the guidance that works, say, 99 percent of the time, but in a life and death situation, or a situation where a person has a lot to gain relative to the sacrifice, the story will quite often lose to the material incentives. We are fallible in more ways than one.
This isn’t to say that incentives always overpower stories. That would contradict the many sacrifices that people make for their beliefs every single day. It’s just that, on average, unless the story we are told is so compelling that it is worth sacrificing our life for, sooner or later, unless the material incentives are aligned with that story, something is going to give.
The reason that money is perhaps the greatest story we have ever told is precisely that it doesn’t feel like a story. It’s so subtle in its narrative, so real in what it offers as a reward in the physical world, that we don’t even stop to think about the fact that it’s a collectively shared myth.
Money is an interesting case study, but this approach is true of anything that humans do both individually and collectively. We have narratives and beliefs in our minds that help determine what we value, and then we have the demands of a physical world that are ruled by incentives.
For some people, narratives and beliefs matter more than most of the day to day incentives that are offered in the physical world. For others, the realness of the rewards in the material world serves as a stronger motivator. For most of us, it’s some complex mix between the two.
Any great company or movement is based on these same two principles. The greatest leaders in the world are both compelling storytellers and also grounded enough in reality to design the most appropriate incentives for whatever they are trying to accomplish for themselves and others.
Even personal agency is a mix of the two: Your sense of self — the story you tell about who you are — and your surrounding environment and its levers meet somewhere in the middle to guide you on the path of your life.
Much of the time we go through life unconscious to these two powerful forces, and this kind of unconsciousness can lead us towards an end that isn’t necessarily in our best interests. To avoid this trap, we have to be aware — both of our own narratives and incentives and also those fed to us by other people who have their personal interests at stake.
The historian Will Durant, summarizing the work of Aristotle, once wrote:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly… We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Acting rightly, however, isn’t just as simple as mindlessly thinking that we are doing the right thing. It’s a conscious movement shaped by forces on the opposing end of the human experience, forces that either push us to a kind of imitation of what is, or forces that lead towards personal excellence.
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