Investment Research Shows Researchers Know Very Little About the Emotions Behind Investing

One researcher says emotions are an investor’s number one foe. Another says emotions improve investment returns.

In a landmark piece of investment research announced two years ago, it was revealed that investors got better returns after being knocked in the head.

That came as welcome news to us. There were plenty of investors we wanted to hit on the head. Besides, we always suspected that you had to be a little mad in order to invest in the first place. Why? Because of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. Broadly stated, the more you have of something, the less each additional bit of it is worth to you.

The first dollar you earn is like your first real kiss; what an impression it makes! But after a few girlfriends, you can barely remember their names. And since you can’t tell the difference between your first dollar and your last one, the effect of earning an extra buck is to raise your wealth overall, but to diminish the value of every single dollar you ever earned.

Logically, if an investment only has 50/50 odds of success, you wouldn’t bother; for every extra dollar you’d earn, you’d lose a more precious one. Investors are instinctively aware of this. So, there is a gentle bias towards caution.

Cometh Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in the emerging field of neuron-economics. We are well aware that we owe to science all the modern wonders we enjoy. Without their inquiries into the nature of things, we wouldn’t have prime-time TV or subprime CDOs. Still, it is hard to believe that man is such a simpleton as science makes him out to be.

Professor Kahneman teamed up with brain neuroscientists for an investment research project and began peeking into investors’ skulls. What they found was that the same areas that flare up under the influence of drugs, also get a buzz going when there is money on the table. So, they got together a group of people who had been hit on the head or whose brains had been damaged in other ways; these people functioned normally otherwise, but experienced much less emotional fizz than normal people.

Then, they played a little game. Starting with $20, each one flipped a coin and called it: heads or tails. If the participant called it correctly, he won $2.50. If he called it incorrectly, he would lose only $1. If he was feeling unlucky, he could pass.

Obviously, the player who wanted to maximize his returns would never pass. The odds of winning were tilted in his favor. But the players demurred anyway. And those who passed least often were those with damaged brains. Naturally, they made the most money; after 20 coin tosses, they had an average of $25.70 versus those with “normal” brains, who had only $22.80.

What does science make of this piece of investment research? That the best investors are mental defectives? No, the conclusion was that emotions get in the way of successful investing. Emotions caused participants to react in ‘illogical’ ways…refusing to bet, even when the odds were clearly in their favor. The un-emotional players, by contrast, did the “rational” thing more often and won more money.

Now, along comes more investment research but with the opposite conclusion:

“Adding emotions to the decision-making process can enhance creativity, engagement and decision efficiency,” wrote Myeong-Gu Seo of the University of Maryland and Lisa Feldman Barrett of Boston College in a study released in August.

“Contrary to the popular belief that the cooler head prevails, people with hot heads – those who experienced their feelings with greater intensity… – achieved higher decision-making performance,” they wrote, after following 101 stock market investors in a simulated trading exercise over a four-week period.

What these investment research projects show is that the people who study investors are knuckleheads. If the investor does not do as they think he should, they take him for an idiot.

A “rational” investor will always seek to maximize returns, they say. Anything else is a “mistake.” But what is so irrational about wanting something other than maximum returns? Is that all that matters in life? Some investors would rather be right than rich. Others enjoy playing the game…teasing themselves with hunches, theories and techniques… even though they know most will fail. Some don’t want to appear too greedy – even to themselves.

Any moron, confronted with the coin toss game and favorable odds of 1.5/1, knows just what to do. There is no skill involved; no fun either. If he is allowed to ‘play’ infinitely, he’ll win an infinite amount of money. On the twenty tosses, mathematically, he could expect to walk away with $35. No more, no less. Maximizing efficiency, he might say, “just give me $34 now and we’ll be finished.”

But efficiency isn’t everything. What cat doesn’t spend a little idle time playing with its mouse before killing it…even though, occasionally, one will get away? What lover longs for the scientist who has perfected the efficient kiss?

Bill Bonner
Markets and Money

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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