How we get fooled by a feeling

How we get fooled by a feeling

 

The debate is always on what’s better: to rely on intuition (feeling) or rely on deliberate thinking while making decisions. Fact is in some cases its better to rely on feeling and in some on deliberate thinking and the trick is to know which to choose when. This post is about learning how not to get fooled by a feeling from an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Read Montague, which demonstrates how our dopamine system leads us to lose money in the stock market.

In the simulated experiment, subjects were given $100 at the start. Players were to invest their money for twenty rounds and got to keep their earnings, if any. Interesting twist of the experiment was that Read Montague had people ‘play’ the Dow of 1929, Nasdaq of 1998, Nikkei of 1986 and S&P 500 of 1987 – what had been once real-life bubbles and crashes.

What the scientists observed from brain mapping, were signals emanating from dopamine rich areas of the brain, like ventral caudate, which was encoding the ability to learn from what-if scenarios. For example, the situation in which a player invested 10% of his total money – relatively small bet. Then he saw the market rise dramatically. What happened was his ungrateful dopamine neurons got fixated on the profits he missed. In such a situation, when the market was booming, like before the Nasdaq bubble of 1998, the players kept increasing their investments. Not to invest was to drown in the feeling of regret. The greedy brains were convinced that they’ve solved the stock market, but just when they are most convinced that it isn’t a bubble, the bubble burst. The Dow sank, the Nasdaq imploded and Nikkei collapsed. All of a sudden, those who regretted not investing more and subsequently invested more were now despairing their plummeting net worth. “When the markets head down,” says Montague, “you get the exact opposite effect. People just can’t wait to get out, because the brain doesn’t want the feeling of regret staying in. Investors dump any stock that’s declining. Panic.”

Jonah Lehrer, author of ‘How we decide’, says, “Our dopamine neurons that release the feel-good chemical, weren’t designed to deal with random oscillations of the stock market. The brain is so eager to maximize rewards that it ends up pushing its owner off a cliff. Casinos have learned to exploit this flaw of the human brain. So don’t try to perceive patterns when they don’t exist. The world is more random than you think it is. Don’t fixate on what might have been or obsess over someone else’s profits. But that’s what our emotions can’t understand.”

Now if you don’t get fooled in such circumstances, tell us how.

Why we sell the wrong stocks from our portfolio

Why we sell the wrong stocks in our portfolio

For most us, the word ‘stocks’ or ‘shares’ is associated with feelings of it being risky, a gamble, incomprehensible, scary, involving the luck factor and so on. Understandably so, betting on the future value of a stock, is no easy task. Even the experts get it wrong a lot of the times. But I would like to drive your attention to a particular behaviour related to stocks, which shows how we make mistakes when selling stocks from our portfolio.

Consider this situation. You need money for an important event in your life and need to sell some stock. Amongst the stocks you own, say, Mata Power according to you is a winner, because if you sell it today you will have achieved a gain of Rs. 3,00,000. You hold an equal investment in Mata Airways, which you consider a loser, is currently worth Rs. 3,00,000 less than you paid for it. The value of both stocks has been stable in recent weeks. Which are you more likely to sell?

What happens is that our minds see the choice like this: I could close the Mata Power account and score a success for my record as an investor. Alternatively, I could close the Mata Airways account and add a failure to my record. Which would I rather do?

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and nobel laureate in Economics, says if the problem is framed by us, as a choice between giving yourself pleasure and causing yourself pain, you will certainly sell Mata Power and enjoy your investment prowess. He calls this the disposition effect.

He says, investors set up a mental account for each share that they have bought, and want to close every account as a gain. It is only the very savvy expert, who would take a comprehensive view of the portfolio and sell the stock that is least likely to do well in the future, without considering it a winner or loser.

The disposition effect is a costly bias. If you care about your wealth rather than your immediate emotions, you will sell the loser Mata Airways and hang on to the winning Mata Power. But closing a mental account with a gain is a pleasure, but it is a pleasure we pay for.

Companies fall into a similar trap of continuing to fund a project even though the returns are now less favourable, simply because they have already put considerable amount of money. When faced with a choice of investing money in a new project that is considered likely to bring higher returns, it most often leads to favouring the option of continuing to fund the existing project.

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