Tax Attacks

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I used to think that my friend Tricia, an accountant, was the most stressed person I knew during tax season. Each year I forget, and each year she reminds me: no plans for fun stuff between January and April 15!

Our two professions don’t have much in common, but we do share some similar lingo: withholding, interest, jointly and evasion, to name a few. But hers is the job with line-in-the-sand deadlines to meet. And it’s not just Tricia who gets stressed. If you listen closely, everyone has some degree of negative emotion around taxes—its only that we’re all in this together that makes it bearable.

We’re all products of our early environments, and nothing is more fear provoking than having an authority figure insist that we have our “homework” in on time, done correctly, and with no addition errors. Just as when we were in school, there are those of us who get our work in early, and a another group who waits until the very last minute.

There are penalties for errors and late work—only now they are expressed in terms of dollars instead of grade point average. The tutor of yesterday is replaced by that benevolent tax guy who takes us under his wing; or the genial gal accountant, who patiently walks us through IRA’s HSA’s, and ESA’s. Beware lest you miss out on the beauty of April with its new flowers and brightly blossoming trees when the IRS casts its dark shadow across these lovely Spring days.

Exemption, deduction, contribution, itemization, extension, evasion. Such a lot of terms to keep straight. No wonder people are confused and churlish. And then there’s the fairness-unfairness gradient that bugs folks. Most Americans favor increasing taxes on “the rich,” but most people don’t see themselves as rich. In the past year, a majority of those polled agreed to higher taxes, and endorsed the reasons for tax hikes. They just didn’t want to be the ones paying them. They disliked any metric which included them under the umbrella of the rich.

The “Journal of Marketing Research” has shown that human nature seems to be inherently anti-tax.  The writers of an article conducted a study in which people were given the choice to purchase things they needed at discounted prices from one of two different stores. The first store offered to sell the goods at a greatly reduced price; while the second store, much farther away, would sell the goods without taxes. The no-tax discount offered by the second store actually amounted to less of an overall price reduction, but the majority of the participants in the study opted for the second store. They avoided paying the taxes, but instead paid a greater sum for the goods they wanted.  The study seems to show that people prefer to spend more money – or to waste money – in order to avoid paying taxes.

Finally, in her paper in “Psychonomic Bulletin,” Claire Hill questioned people about their beliefs regarding taxes. She found that – as expected – the stereotypes of people who are sent to jail for theft or drug use are all negative. These are not nice individuals. But those convicted for tax evasion were seen as hard working people who were acting intelligently.

This season is a psychologist’s dream with so much unconscious material unleashed by a reliably repetitive ritual that comes around each year. Dr. Freud wrote that man’s psyche has two essential drivers: Work and Love. He forgot taxes.

Dr. Wimsatt is a psychotherapist practicing in Newport Beach and can be reached at (949)222-3285 or [email protected].

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