I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned as a psychology major in college, but one thing that’s stuck with me is the concept of cognitive dissonance — the idea that when an individual has two thoughts in logical opposition to one another, it creates internal stress and, ultimately, can encourage them to behave in ways often against their self-interest.
Cognitive dissonance, as I see it, might be one of the explanations for the current state of credit card spending in the United States.
According to data released by the New York Fed on Monday, credit card debt in the United States hit $1.023 trillion in November, an all-time high. It’s even higher than it was in 2008, when the economy went into a tailspin. Consumer confidence, too, is at a 17-year high, which experts have cited as a possible reason for the sharp rise in credit card debt.
But why is there so much positivity out there, both in the form of increased credit card spending and overall consumer confidence? Wage and salary growth have experienced a consistent downward slide over the past 50 years and income inequality has grown by leaps and bounds in the country. Consider a recent report from the World Wealth and Income Database, which found that “In the United States, the share of wealth owned by the top 1% adults grew from a historic low of below 22% in 1978, to almost 39% in 2014."
According to that same report, income inequality simply created more income inequality: "These changes enabled the wealthy to purchase more wealth assets with high returns, setting a snowballing effect in motion for those at the top of the distribution, while wealth of the middle class stagnated."
"Consequently," the authors added, "the wealth share of the middle 40% fell from a historic high of almost 37% of total wealth in 1986, to around 28% in 2014.”
In other words, most of us are making less money, while the rich are getting richer, and yet we’re charging up our credit cards like there’s no tomorrow and our economic outlook in general is all rainbows and unicorns.
Some of that, though, begins to make a little more sense when you take a closer look at the data.
First off, in addition to record levels of credit card debt, credit card originations were also at an all time high; the total amount of available credit banks offer new credit card customers hit $109 billion in the third quarter of 2017. But the growth in originations hasn’t been across the board, as the vast majority of the new credit was extended to prime and super-prime borrowers (the people with the best credit scores, who are most likely to have the money to pay off their credit card debt). However, just having good credit doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the highest income or that you’ve seen your income grow.
Here's where the cognitive dissonance comes in.
Let’s imagine a middle class family with good credit. Their salaries aren’t going up, certainly not enough to keep up with their skyrocketing healthcare costs. They live in the northeast and they’ve just found out that their insanely high property taxes are no longer deductible; they’re tired of all cold weather, and they could really use a vacation. They can’t really afford to take one, but they did get a credit card offer in the mail with a zero percent APR introductory offer. It’s like a $100 bill burning a hole in their pockets. They decide, a bit on a whim, to get the credit card and find a deal for an all inclusive vacation to Jamaica, where they’ve always wanted to go.
In the hours after making the purchase, they feel pangs of doubt. Was this an irresponsible purchase? After all, they’re not making more money, their expenses are going up, and robots could wind up with their jobs in a couple years.
That's where the cognitive dissonance sets in: They need to get away and take a break, but they can’t afford it and should conserve the money they've already spent.
The key to the psychological resolution — though not one the credit card issuer will accept when the bill comes due — lies in the fact that they’ve already made the purchase. When it comes to cognitive dissonance, the idea that wins is often the one aligned with actions you’ve taken, because you can change your ideas more easily than events that have already happened. So in this case, they’ve bought the vacation (which is non-refundable) so they are more likely to settle on feelings that are aligned with that act: hopefulness about the future, confidence in job security and, of course, certainty that they’ll be able to pay off the credit card debt without incurring too much interest.
The same could be happening to the country as a whole. We’re being offered more money by banks, so we spend it, and in spending it we incentivize ourselves to feel better and more hopeful about our prospects and the economy in general — despite very serious warning signs about their future of the economy in general and perhaps their credit card debt in particular.
It's not that different than in the months and years before the Great Recession: Back then we found a way to feel great about buying homes we couldn’t afford, and now we're possibly doing the same with credit card purchases.
Time will tell if the fears about that increasing credit card debt are justified, but one thing is certain: Regardless of how good you feel about taking a vacation you put on a credit card, the bill is always going to come due when you get back from the beach.
Michael Schreiber is an Emmy- and duPont-award winning reporter, editor and producer who has worked at The New York Times, Frontline, ABC News, TheStreet.com, HBO and others. He is a contributing editor at Inc.com, a columnist at Forbes and recently founded Amalgamated Unlimited, a company devoted to helping organizations develop content and editorial strategies.