Posts tagged ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’

Decision Making on Freeways and in Parking Lots

Many drivers here in California adhere to the common freeway speed limit of 65 miles per hour, while some do not (I’ll take the 5th). In the vast majority of cases, racing to your destination at these faster speeds makes perfect sense. However, driving 65 mph through the shopping mall parking lot could get you killed, so slower driving is preferred in this instance. Ultimately, the specific environment and situation will dictate the rational and prudent driving speed. Decision making works in much the same way, and Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, has encapsulated his decades of research in psychology and economics in his most recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Much of Kahneman’s big ideas are analyzed through the lenses of “System 1” and “System 2” – the fast and slow decision-making processes persistently used by our brains.  System 1 thinking is our intuition in the fast lane, continually making judgments in real-time. Our System 1 hunches are often correct, but because of speedy, inherent biases and periodic errors this process can cause us to miss an off-ramp or even cause a conclusion collision. System 2, on the other hand, is the slower, methodical decision-making process in our brains that keeps our hasty System 1 process in check. Although little mental energy is exerted by using System 1, a great deal of cerebral horsepower is required to use System 2.

Summarizing 512 pages of Kahneman’s book in a single article may be challenging, nevertheless I will do my best to summarize some of the interesting highlights and anecdotes. A multitude of Kahneman’s research is reviewed, but a key goal of the book is designed to help individuals identify errors in judgment and biases, in order to lower the prevalence of mental mistakes in the future.

Over Kahneman’s 50+ year academic career, he has uncovered an endless string of flaws in the human thought process. To bring those mistakes to life, he uses several mind experiments to illustrate them. Here are a few:

Buying Baseball: We’ll start off with a simple Kahneman problem. If a baseball bat and a ball cost a total of  $1.10, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, then how much does the ball cost? The answer is $0.10, right? WRONG! Intuition and the rash System 1 forces most people to answer $0.10 cents for the ball, but after going through the math it becomes clear that this gut answer is wrong. If the ball is $0.10 and the bat is $1 more, then that would mean the bat costs $1.10, making the total $1.20…WRONG! This is clearly a System 2 problem, which requires the brain to see a $0.05 ball plus $1.05 bat equals $1.10…CORRECT!

The Invisible Gorilla: As Kahneman points out, humans can be blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness. To make this point he references an experiment and book titled Invisible Gorilla, created by Chritopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. In the experiment, three players wearing white outfits pass a basketball around at the same time that a group of players wearing black outfits pass around a separate basketball. The anomaly in the experiment occurs when someone in a full-sized gorilla outfit goes prancing through the scene for nine full seconds. To the surprise of many, about half of the experiment observers do not see the gorilla. In addition, the gorilla-blind observers deny the existence of the large, furry animal when confronted with recorded evidence (see video below).

Green & Red Dice: In this thought experiment, Kahneman describes a group presented with a regular six-sided die with four green sides (G) and two red sides (R), meaning the probability of the die landing on green (G) is is much higher than the probability of landing on red (R). To make the experiment more interesting, the group is provided a cash prize for picking the highest probability scenario out of the following three sequences: 1) R-G-R-R-R; 2) G-R-G-R-R-R; and 3) G-R-R-R-R-R. Although most participants pick sequence #2 because it has the most greens (G) in it, if one looks more closely, sequence #2 is the same as #1 except for sequence #2 has an additional green (G). Therefore, the highest probability winning answer should be sequence #1 because sequence #2 adds an uncertain roll that may or may not land on green (G).

While the previous experiments described some notable human decision-making flaws, here are some more human flaws:

Anchoring Effect: Was Gandhi 114 when he died, or was Gandhi 35 when he died? Depending how the question is asked, asking the initial question first will skew the respondents answer to a higher age, because the respondents answer will be somewhat anchored to the number “114”. Similarly, the price a homebuyer would pay for a house will be influenced or anchored to the asking price. Another word used by some for anchoring is “suggestion”. If a subliminal suggestion is planted, people’s responses can become anchored to that idea.

Overconfidence: We encounter overconfidence in several forms, especially from what Kahneman calls the “Illusion of Pundits,” which is the confidence that comes with 20-20 hindsight experienced in our 24/7 media world. Or as Kahneman states in a different way, “The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.” Driving is another example of overconfidence – very few people believe they are poor drivers. In fact, a well-known study shows that “90% of drivers believe they are better than average,” despite defying the laws of mathematics.

Risk Aversion: In Kahneman’s book, he also references risk aversion studies by Mathew Rabin and Richard Thaler. What the researchers discovered is that people appear to be irrational in the way they respond to certain risk scenarios. For example, people will turn down the following gambles: 

A 50% chance to lose $100 and a 50% chance to win $200;


A 50% chance to lose $200 and a 50% chance to win $20,000 .

Although rational math would indicate these are smart bets to take, however most people decline the game because humans on average weigh losses twice as much as gains (see also the Pleasure/Pain Principle). To get a better understanding of predictive human behavior, the real emotional costs of disappointment and regret need to be accounted for.

Truth Illusions: A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is through repetition. More exposure will breed more liking. In addition to normal conversations, these repetitive truth illusions can be witnessed in propaganda or advertising. Minimizing cognitive strain also reinforces points. Using bold, colored, and contrasted language is more convincing. Simpler language rather than more complex language is also more credible.

Narrative Fallacies: We humans have an innate desire to continually explain the causation of an event due to skill or stupidity – even if randomness is the best explanation.People try to make sense of the world, even though many outcomes have no straightforward explanation. Often times, a statistical phenomenon like “regression to the mean” can explain the results (i.e., outliers revert directionally toward averages). The “Sports Illustrated Jinx,” or the claim that a heralded cover story athlete will be subsequently cursed with bad performance, is used as a case in point. Actually, there is no jinx or curse, but often fickle luck disappears and athletic performance reverts to norms.

Kahneman on Stocks

Many of the principles in Kahneman’s book can be applied to the world of stocks and investing too. According to Kahneman, the investing industry has been built on an “illusion of skill,” or the belief that one person has better information than the other person. To make his point, Kahneman references research by Terry Odean, a finance professor at UC Berkely, who studied the records of 10,000 brokerage accounts of individual investors spanning a seven-year period and covering almost 163,000 trades. The net result showed dramatic underperformance by the individual traders and confirmed that stocks sold by the traders consistently did better than the stocks purchased.“Taking a shower and doing nothing” would have been better than the value destroying trading activity. In fact, the most active traders did much worse than those who traded the least. For professional managers the conclusions are not a whole lot different.  “For a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker. Typically at least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year,” says Kahneman. I don’t disagree, but I do believe, like .300 hitters in baseball, there are a few managers that can consistently outperform.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow and I apply many of his conclusions to my investment practice at Sidoxia. We all race through decisions every day, but as he repeatedly points out, familiarizing ourselves with these common mental pitfalls, and also utilizing our more methodical and accurate System 2 thought process regularly, can create better decisions. Better decisions not only for our regular lives, but also for our investing lives. It’s perfectly OK to race down the mental freeway at 65 mph (or faster), but don’t forget to slow down occasionally, in order to avoid mental collisions.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any 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.

September 9, 2012 at 10:36 am 3 comments

Experts vs. Dart-Throwing Chimps

Daniel Kahneman, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, knows a few things about human behavior and decision making, and he has a Nobel Prize in Economics to prove it.  We live in a complex world and our brains will often try to compensate by using shortcuts (or what Kahneman calls “heuristics” and “biases”), in hopes of simplifying complicated situations and problems.

When our brains become lazy, or we are not informed in a certain area, people tend to also listen to so-called experts or pundits to clarify uncertainties. In the process of their work, Kahneman and other researchers have discovered something – experts should be listened to as much as monkeys. Frequent readers of Investing Caffeine understand my shared skepticism of the talking heads parading around on TV (read first entry of 10 Ways to Destroy Your Portfolio)

Here is how Kahneman describes the reliability of professional forecasts and predictions in his recently published bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“People who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options.”

Most people fall prey to this illusion of predictability created by experts, or this idea that more knowledge equates to better predictions and forecasts. One of the factors perpetuating this myth is the rearview mirror. In other words, human’s ability to concoct a credible story of past events creates a false confidence in peoples’ ability to accurately predict the future.

Here’s how Kahneman describes the phenomenon:

“The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained…Our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact financial pundits exploit every evening as they offer convincing accounts of the day’s events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.”

Even when experts are wrong about their predictions, they tend to not accept accountability. Rather than take responsibility for a bad prediction, Philip Tetlock says the errors are often attributed to “bad timing” or an “unforeseeable event.” Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania did a landmark twenty-year study, which was published in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (read excellent review in The New Yorker).  In the study Tetlock interviewed 284 economic and political professionals and collected more than 80,000 predictions from them. The results? The experts did worse than blind guessing.

Based on the extensive training and knowledge of these experts, many of them develop a false sense of confidence in their predictions. Or as Tetlock explains it, “They [experts] are just human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong. Experts are led astray not by what they believe, but by how they think.”

Brain Blunders and Stock Picking

The buyer of a stock thinks the price will go up and the seller of a stock thinks the price will go down.  Both participants engage in the transaction because they believe the current stock price is wrong. The financial services industry is built largely on this phenomenon that Kahneman calls an “illusion of skill,” or ability to exploit inefficient market pricing. Relentless advertisements and marketing pitches continually make the case that professionals can outperform the markets, but this is what Kahneman found:

“Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill needed to beat the market consistently, year after year. Professional investors, including fund managers, fail a basic test of skill: persistent achievement…Skill in evaluating the business prospects of a firm is not sufficient for successful stock trading, where the key question is whether the information about the firm is already incorporated in the price of its stock. Traders apparently lack the skill to answer this crucial question, but they appear ignorant of their ignorance.”

For the few managers that actually do outperform, Kahneman assigns luck to the outcome, not skill:

“For a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker. Typically at least two out of three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year…The successful funds in any given year are mostly lucky; they have a good roll of the dice.”

The picture for individual investors isn’t any prettier. Evidence from Terry Odeam, a finance professor at UC Berkeley, who studied 100,000 individual brokerage account statements and about 163,000 trades over a seven-year period, was not encouraging. He discovered that stocks sold actually did +3.2% better than the replacement stocks purchased. And this detrimental impact on performance excludes the significant expenses related to trading.

In response to Odean’s work, Kahneman states:

“It is clear that for the large majority of individual investors, taking a shower and doing nothing would have been a better policy than implementing the ideas that came to their minds….Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.”

In a future Odean paper titled, “Trading is Hazardous to your Wealth,” Odean and his colleague Brad Barber also proved that “less is more.” The results showed the most active traders had the weakest performance, and those traders who traded the least had the best returns. Interestingly, women were shown to have better investment results than men.

Regardless of whether someone is listening to an expert, fund manager, or individual investor, what Daniel Kahneman has discovered in his long, illustrious career is that humans consistently make errors. If you are wise, you will heed Kahneman’s advice by stealing the expert’s darts and handing them over to the chimp.

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.

July 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm 1 comment

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