Why outcomes beat fear

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

It seems to be human nature to be fascinated by pathology. Sigmund Freud began his study of the human psyche by outlining how it was broken (hint: your Mom) and the discipline continued down that path for over a century. It was roughly 150 years before the study of clinical psychology was offset at all by the study of what we now call “positive psychology” – the study of what makes us happy, strong, and exceptional. Perhaps it is no surprise then that behavioral finance too began with the study of the anomalous and is only now coming around to a more solution-focused ideal. While a thorough review of the transition from efficient to behavioral approaches isn’t why we are here, it’s worth considering the rudiments of these ideas and how we can improve upon them.

For decades, the prevailing economic theories espoused a view of Economic Man as rational, utility maximizing, and self-interested. On these simple (if unrealistic) assumptions, economists built mathematical models of exceeding elegance but limited real-world applicability. It all worked beautifully, until it didn’t. Goaded only by a belief in the predictability of Economic Man, The Smartest People in the Room picked up pennies in front of steamrollers – until they got flattened.

On the strength of hedge fund implosions, multiple manias with accompanying crashes and mounting evidence of human irrationality, Economic Man begin to give way to Behavioral Man. Behavioral proponents began to document the flaws of investors with the same righteous zeal with which proponents of market efficiency had previously defended the aggregate wisdom of the crowd. At my last count, psychologists and economists had uncovered 117 documented biases capable of obscuring lucid financial decision-making. One hundred and seventeen different ways for you to get it wrong.

But the problem with all this Ivory Tower philosophizing is that none of it truly helps investors. For a clinical psychologist, a diagnosis is a necessary but far from sufficient part of a treatment plan. No shrink worth his $200 an hour would label you pathological and show you the door, yet that is largely what behavioral finance has given the investing public: a surfeit of pathology and a shortage of outcomes.

To consider firsthand the futility of being told only what not to do, let’s try the following.

“Do not think of a pink elephant.”

What happened as you read the first sentence of this section? Odds are, you did the very thing I asked you not to do – you imagined a pink elephant. How disappointing! You could have imagined any number of things – you had infinity minus one option – and yet you still disobeyed my simple request. Sigh. Oh well, I haven’t given up on you yet, so let’s try one more time.

“Do not, whatever you do, imagine a large purple elephant with a parasol daintily tiptoeing across a highwire connecting two tall buildings in a large metropolitan area.”

You did it again, didn’t you?

All feigned anger aside, what you just experienced was the very natural tendency to imagine and even ruminate on something, even when you know you oughtn’t. Consider the person on a diet who has created a lengthy list of “bad” foods. He may, for instance, repeat the mantra, “I will not eat a cookie. I will not eat a cookie. I will not eat a cookie.” any time he experiences the slightest temptation.

But what is the net effect of all his self-flagellating rumination? Effectively he has thought about cookies all day and is likely to cave at the first sign of an Oreo. The research is unequivocal that a far more effective approach is to reorient that behavior into something desirable rather than repeat messages of self-denial that ironically keep the “evil” object top of mind. Unfortunately for investors in a panic, there are far more histrionic “Don’t do this!” messages than constructive “Do this instead”, which is where The Center for Outcomes comes in. At the Brinker Capital Center for Outcomes, we have taken behavioral finance out of the textbooks and are putting it in the hands of advisors where it belongs. By utilizing our empirically-based, four-step process, advisors are given specific tools for communicating with clients in a persuasive manner. Click here to learn how to say “Yes” to outcomes.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Opinions represented are not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security and are subject to change without notice.  

Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.