Alligators, Airplane Crashes, and the Investment Brain

February 25, 2011 at 1:47 am Leave a comment

“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or think sanely under the influence of a great fear…To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” – Bertrand Russell

Fear is a powerful force, and if not harnessed appropriately can prove ruinous and destructive to the performance of your investment portfolios. The preceding three years have shown the poisonous impacts fear can play on the average investor results, and Jason Zweig, financial columnist at The Wall Street Journal presciently wrote about this subject aptly titled “Fear,” just before the 2008 collapse.

Fear affects us all to differing degrees, and as Zweig points out, often this fear is misguided – even for professional investors. Zweig uses the advancements in neuroscience and behavioral finance to help explain how irrational decisions can often be made. To illustrate the folly in human’s thought process, Zweig offers up a multiple examples. Here is part of a questionnaire he highlights in his article:

“Which animal is responsible for the greatest number of human deaths in the U.S.?

A.)   Alligator; B.) Bear; C.) Deer; D.) Shark; and E.) Snake

The ANSWER: C) Deer.

The seemingly most docile creature of the bunch turns out to cause the most deaths. Deer don’t attack with their teeth, but as it turns out, deer prance in front of speeding cars relatively frequently, thereby causing deadly collisions. In fact, deer collisions trigger seven times more deaths than alligators, bears, sharks, and snakes combined, according to Zweig.

Another factoid Zweig uses to explain cloudy human thought processes is the fear-filled topic of plane crashes versus car crashes. People feel very confident driving in a car, yet Zweig points out, you are 65 times more likely to get killed in your own car versus a plane, if you adjust for distance traveled. Hall of Fame NFL football coach John Madden hasn’t flown on an airplane since 1979 due to his fear of flying – investors make equally, if not more, irrational judgments in the investment world.

Professor Dr. Paul Slovic believes controllability and “knowability” contribute to the level of fear or perception of risk. Handguns are believed to be riskier than smoking, in large part because people do not have control over someone going on a gun rampage (i.e., Jared Loughner Tuscon, Arizona murders), while smokers have the power to just stop. The reality is smoking is much riskier than guns. On the “knowability” front, Zweig uses the tornadoes versus asthma comparison. Even though asthma kills more people, since it is silent and slow progressing, people generally believe tornadoes are riskier.

The Tangible Cause

Deep within the brain are two tiny, almond-shaped tissue formations called the amygdala. These parts of the brain, which have been in existence since the period of early-man, serve as an alarm system, which effectively functions as a fear reflex. For instance, the amygdala may elicit an instinctual body response if you encounter a bear, snake, or knife thrown at you.

Money fears set off the amygdala too. Zweig explains the linkage between fiscal and physical fears by stating, “Losing money can ignite the same fundamental fears you would feel if you encountered a charging tiger, got caught in a burning forest, or stood on the crumbling edge of a cliff.” Money plays such a large role in our society and can influence people’s psyches dramatically. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio observed, “Money represents the means of maintaining life and sustaining us as organisms in our world.”

The Solutions

So as we deal with events such as the Lehman bankruptcy, flash crashes, Greek civil unrest, and Middle East political instability, how should investors cope with these intimidating fears? Zweig has a few recommended techniques to deal with this paramount problem:

1)      Create a Distraction: When feeling stressed or overwhelmed by risk, Zweig urges investors to create a distraction or moment of brevity. He adds, “To break your anxiety, go for a walk, hit the gym, call a friend, play with your kids.”  

2)      Use Your Words:  Objectively talking your way through a fearful investment situation can help prevent knee-jerk reactions and suboptimal outcomes. Zweig advises to the investor to answer a list of unbiased questions that forces the individual to focus on the facts – not the emotions.  

3)      Track Your Feelings: Many investors tend to become overenthusiastic near market tops and show despair near market bottoms. Long-term successful investors realize good investments usually make you sweat. Fidelity fund manager Brian Posner rightly stated, “If it makes me feel like I want to throw up, I can be pretty sure it’s a great investment.” Accomplished value fund manager Chris Davis echoed similar sentiments when he said, “We like the prices that pessimism produces.”

4)      Get Away from the Herd: The best investment returns are not achieved by following the crowd. Get a broad range of opinions and continually test your investment thesis to make sure peer pressure is not driving key investment decisions.

Investors can become their worst enemies. Often these fears are created in our minds, whether self-inflicted or indirectly through the media or other source. Do yourself a favor and remove as much emotion from the investment decision-making process, so you do not become hostage to the fear du jour. Worrying too much about alligators and plane crashes will do more harm than good, when making critical decisions.

Read Other Jason Zweig Article from IC

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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