When Personal Finance Isn’t Personal: Brain Coupling & Mirroring

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

Child: “Why can’t I go? All of my friends are going.

Parent: “Well, if your friend jumped off of a bridge, would you want to do that, too?”

Child: “It depends on how high it is.”

Parent: So, you CAN think for yourself?”

It’s a conversation that all parents have with their children at some point.  The need to be like the people we surround ourselves with starts young.  I certainly see it in my elementary school aged children.

We all have our embarrassing examples. One of mine involves wearing JNCO jeans in middle school, because it was “cool.”  You know, the jeans that could fit an individual sycamore tree trunk inside each pant leg. We are talking 50 inch seems at the foot!

Looking back, I can see how ridiculous those baggy bell-bottomed jeans actually were – not to mention how impractical they made daily routines, like walking.  However, my desire to wear them was fueled by the friends that I associated with at that young impressionable age.

What if I told you that we all still do the same thing today – even as adults? And that it has a dramatic impact on your personal and financial well-being.

Let’s talk science, finance, and friends.  You may think twice about who you associate with by the end of this post.

Brain Coupling 

Do you remember the first time you fell in love?

You probably said something to your friends like, “we hit it off”  or “they just get me.”

What if I told you that this wasn’t just a magical romantic experience without explanation, but that it has actually been described scientifically, too? Psychologists call it brain coupling or mirroring.

Brain coupling is the act of finding that common “wavelength” or “frequency” we often experience with a close friend or loved one.  It’s that feeling we get when the other person can “finish our sentences”.  Those  butterflies in our stomach aren’t magical after all.

Mirroring, on the other hand, is the act of replicating what others around us are doing.  If they cross their arms in contempt during a conversation, we will likely do the same.  Laughter can be infectious, too, right?  Mirroring is likely one of the reasons for this phenomenon.

The take away from this is that we end up becoming like the people with which we most closely associated with on a deeply emotional level.

This also reveals the importance of having tough goal-setting conversations with our spouses so that we can be on the same page.

Personal Finance Isn’t Personal

But, wait, you probably started reading this post expecting to learn something about your behaviors as they relate to personal finance!  After all, this is a Wednesday post.

The thing is that brain coupling or mirroring causes the same phenomenon with JNCO jeans as it does with your personal finances.

We recently discussed the counterculture of the FI community and the various ways that we distinctly buck the trends of the typical American household.

One of the key differences is the people that we associate with on a typical basis.  As we have discussed already, the people we most deeply and emotionally connect with are people we are likely to mirror.

If we surround ourselves with people who are big spenders, then it shouldn’t surprise us when we feel the pressure to buy the big house, finance the expensive cars, put our kids in private school, or buy the newest designer gadgets.

This is where you should be asking yourself, “Would you jump off of a bridge if your friends were doing it, too?”

Maybe.  It’s not just a children’s problem after all.

Being a high-income earning medical professional can make this a real challenge where financial literacy is low and poor spending habits run rampant.

Doing the right thing – like avoiding lifestyle inflation after we finish training – can be tough when very few others are doing it.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

All of this should drive home one really important point: when it comes to financial success: it is vital to surround ourselves with people who have like-minded views on personal finance.

In particular,  it is important to share similar spending habits.

I’ve seen this at work in my own life as I started to crave more knowledge in personal finance topics a couple of years ago.  I no longer think it was a coincidence given that our two closest friends are frugal by nature and one of them knows a ton about personal finance.

Our conversations often range from the roth versus pre-tax 401K contribution debate to investing versus paying down debt and when to buy the next house.

Does this mean that it’s impossible to be a frugal person while surrounded by non-frugal friends?  Absolutely not.

But, we have to admit how challenging that experience is when others are taking big expensive trips, driving new cars, or discussing their most recent high-priced expenditure.

When we repeatedly hear the lie that spending more money will make us happier, we can ignore it for only so long.

So, choose today to find people who are on the path to financial independence. If you cannot find those people in person, it makes it all the more vital to be plugged into these communities online.

Take Home

Recognize that humans are built to couple and mirror with those around us. It’s how we are wired.

Take this information, and put it to good use.  Surround yourself with people who share similar financial and life goals.  It will only strengthen your resolve and accountability to make the smart financial decisions that are necessary.

Would you jump off the bridge if your friend was?  I’m not sure.  But now you know why you might feel compelled to even if it isn’t the right thing to do.

Have you noticed these phenomenons in your own life? How do your closest relationships impact your finances?  Share some stories or experiences below.



  1. Deanna

    Oh boy! I was the epitome of mirroring when I was younger. I just wanted to be liked so I followed suit of my peers.

    Not so much now as I really work hard to think for myself. However, it is a great argument to really be careful in who we surround ourselves with.
    Thanks, TPP!

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      It can be a tough balance! We all need to find community, but where we find it is equally important!

  2. Xrayvsn

    It is hilarious how becoming an adult I am saying the same things to my child that my parents told me at their age. Some phrases just never go out of style and I am sure my daughter will repeat the “jump of a bridge” phrase to her kids and carry on the tradition.

    It is true that there is a part of us that wants to fit in with our tribe. Choose a flashy expensive one and you have the urge to spend more than you should so you don’t get kicked out/become an outkast.

    Kids are very impressionable and peer pressure has its most powerful moments in high school. Every one wants to be in one of the cool clicks. But hopefully as an adult you realize that it is not important to change to try and fit in, but rather find a group that is more suitable so you can be yourself. The online community is a great way to get in touch with like-minded people.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Great advice, X-ray. Be yourself and find the group that accepts you. In the financial world, if you are having a hard time doing that the online FI community is always here!

  3. Dr Dave

    On a somewhat related tangent, this post reminded me of persuasion techniques discussed by Robert Cialdini on a podcast.

    Mirroring is one of these techniques…

  4. Dr Dave

    Different one… unfortunately can’t remember which one it was.

  5. Wealthy Doc

    Great advice throughout.
    “It depends on how high it is” was my favorite part. Made me laugh. Smart kid!

  6. Dr. McFrugal

    I guess we are the five people we spend the most time with, right? So we should aim to surround ourselves with people we aspire to be like.

  7. Donna Cotten

    That very question to my young son, who did everything his older friend did, “If Chad jumped off a bridge would do it also?”
    Completely sincere in his strong feelings for his friend, he replied without hesitation, “ To save him I would!” Needless to say, we didn’t quite know the answer to that answer. Smile


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