psychology


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Many people have heard of the “Marshmallow Test,” Walter Mischel’s famous experiment testing the patience and self-control of preschoolers in the early 1960s. The children were seated next to a table with a marshmallow on a plate, and told if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it they would be able to get another marshmallow. The videos of these cute kids trying to resist the lure of a single marshmallow are as wonderful to watch as they are instructive in how difficult it is to defer gratification; only a third of the children were able to wait long enough to get the second marshmallow.

Interesting for sure but hardly Earth-shaking information. The study would gradually fade into scholarly oblivion and that might have been the end of it for the Marshmallow Test. Then in 2006 Mischel published a follow-up study that tracked the original subjects 40 years later—and those results blew the cover off the ball.

The follow-up study revealed that the children who were able to wait for a second marshmallow ended up with dramatically higher SAT scores, higher GPAs in college, greater earnings during their working life—even lower body-mass indexes—than those children who could not wait. The attributes of patience and self-control were not merely useful in gaining an additional marshmallow, but rather harbingers of a better, richer and more fulfilling life. The Marshmallow Test became a common metaphor for that insight.

In retrospect the lessons seem obvious and self-evident. Given the fact they are ignored regularly by so many people, one would wonder which is more notable—the lessons or the irrational behavior? Of course I am not talking about 5-year-olds. I am talking about full grown adult investors who understand the value of patience and deferred gratification, but are simply incapable of putting into action what they know in their heads.

Being a patient investor does not mean you are absolutely certain about the future or that you have to ignore current events. Being a patient investor means that you are discerning enough and willing enough to accept the kinds of risks whose actualization and ultimate repair exist over time periods that exceed the patience of most other investors, and therefore can be exploited for substantial and recurring profit. Experienced investors commonly refer to this as “time arbitrage.”

Because of the growing popularity of behavioral economics, we now understand that we stand in the way of our own success far more often than we realize. Less well-known, but an equally persistent and powerful enemy to our patience, is a side effect of some of the impressive and useful technology most of us rely upon daily to connect to each other and the world; the same technology that has greatly improved our productivity and our lives.

Tech Effect

I was an early adopter of technology. I bought my first PC in 1983, quickly saw the benefits of email, wireless and the Internet, was the first on my block to get a broadband connection, and became completely paperless before the end of the 20th century. I can say with total confidence that I could not run my business with anywhere close to the flexibility, efficiency or effectiveness that these incredible tools have afforded me—and without question my personal life is better as a result of advances that even to this day amaze me.

Yet with every benefit there’s always a cost—and this particular cost was one I could never have imagined.

I’ve always been an avid reader. About four years ago I noticed that my normal capacity to spend long hours of uninterrupted reading was just not there anymore. I assumed it was because I was getting older. About the same time I read Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows.” Carr related that his ability to concentrate wasn’t what it used to be and his long reading spells were becoming non-existent.

He wrote: “The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing…. I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes…. [M]y brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.”

What Carr was discovering was something that neuroscientists had been observing for years. The brain has plasticity: It can be trained to change—and not necessarily in positive ways. Carr noted that “the more we use the Web, the more that we train our brain to be distracted—to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention.”

A 2009 study by Ball State University revealed that Americans spent over eight hours of their day looking at television, a computer monitor, tablet or smart phone—often a few of them at the same time. Carr wrote: “The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.” Blogger Cory Doctorow labeled it an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” The natural result of our spending so much of our waking hours in “screen time” is that our brains are creating new pathways, ones that allow us to feel comfortable and competent in an environment that provides us with quick answers, endless variety and limitless distraction.

Is there benefit to this? Without a doubt. I did my research for this column with incredible efficiency—accessing research, news articles, opinion pieces and data in a few hours; something that previously would have taken days, even weeks. But if I hadn’t taken the time to read Carr’s book—putting it down, letting the ideas settle and then coming back to them—my understanding of the nuances of his arguments, or how they connect to other ideas, could never happen.

Unless we retrain our brains to become accustomed to deeper kinds of thinking, today’s online, on-screen, always connected world will continue to reinforce our brains’ very happy existence in the shallow end of the intellectual pool.

Investment Obstacle

An implication of Carr’s argument for us is clear: It will be increasingly difficult for investors to build the kind of foundation robust enough to withstand the powerful challenges markets inevitably pose to our deepest held convictions. And with our attention spans cut so short, the odds of time arbitrage or any long-term strategy hitting our radar screen seem increasingly remote.

Even if Carr’s argument turns out to be completely baseless, we’re not off the hook. The media regularly bombard us with this recurring and repetitive message: “What is happening right now is really important—and you need to do something about it!” The world we live in incents us to keep our attention squarely on the issue du jour.

Anyone who has been physically active knows that you can’t run a marathon unless you seriously train for it—the strength, the endurance and the aerobic capacity require time and effort to build. And while I can attest to the fact that at some point in the race, it becomes mind over matter, you can’t run a marathon without the physical preparation.

Similarly, the intellectual preparation needed to have the kind of robust patience necessary to execute and sustain a “buy and hold” strategy involves much time and effort—but as we know instinctively and empirically, the effort is worth it. Especially when the all-too-common alternative is the “buy and hope” gambit—and we know how that turns out.

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With that in mind, here are what Herring calls the Ten Golden Rules of Argument.

1. Be prepared

Make sure you know the essential points you want to make. Research the facts you need to convince your opponent.

Also, Herring advises: “Before starting an argument think carefully about what it is you are arguing about and what it is you want. This may sound obvious. But it’s critically important. What do you really want from this argument? Do you want the other person to just understand your point of view? Or are you seeking a tangible result? If it’s a tangible result, you must ask yourself whether this result you have in mind is realistic and whether it’s obtainable. If it’s not realistic or obtainable, then a verbal battle might damage a valuable relationship.”

2. When to argue, when to walk away
I’m sure you’ve had an argument before and later felt that it was the wrong time and place. “Knowing when to enter into an argument and when not to is a vital skill.”

Think carefully before you start to argue: is this the time; is this the place?

3. What you say and how you say it

Spend time thinking about how to present your argument. Body language, choice of words and manner of speaking all affect how your argument will come across.

One clever thing to do here, that shows you’ve done the work, is to address the arguments against your position before they arise.

4. Listen and listen again

Listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Watch their body language, listen for the meaning behind their words.

As a general rule, Herring writes, “you should spend more time listening than talking. Aim for listening for 75 percent of the conversation and giving your own arguments 25 percent.” And listening doesn’t mean that you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next.

This is often where a lot of arguments, and discussions for that matter, veer off course. If you’re not listening to the other person and addressing their statements, you’ll just keep making your same points over and over. The other person won’t agree with those and the argument quickly becomes frustrating.

5. Excel at responding to arguments

Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to. What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing.

There are three main ways to respond to an argument: 1) challenge the facts the other person is using; 2) challenge the conclusions they draw from those facts; and 3) accept the point, but argue the weighting of that point (i.e., other points should be considered above this one.)

6. Watch out for crafty tricks

Arguments are not always as good as they first appear. Be wary of your opponent’s use of statistics. Keep alert for distraction techniques such as personal attacks and red herrings. Look out for concealed questions and false choices.

7. Develop the skills of arguing in public

Keep it simple and clear. Be brief and don’t rush.

8. Be able to argue in writing

Always choose clarity over pomposity. Be short, sharp, and to the point, using language that is easily understood.

9. Be great at resolving deadlock

Be creative in finding ways out of an argument that’s going nowhere. Is it time to look at the issue from another angle? Are there ways of putting pressure on so that the other person has to agree with you? Is a compromise possible?

10. Maintain relationships

This is absolutely key. What do you want from this argument? Humiliating, embarrassing or aggravating your opponent might make you feel good at the time, but you might have many lonely days to rue your mistake. Find a result that works for both of you. You need to move forward. Then you will be able to argue another day.

Another approach to end arguments is to simply ask the other person to explain their thinking.

How to Argue goes on to explore putting the rules into practice in particular situations where arguments arise.

The perceptual ambiguity of wine helps explain why contextual influences—say, the look of a label, or the price tag on the bottle—can profoundly influence expert judgment. This was nicely demonstrated in a mischievous 2001 experiment led by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. In the first test, Brochet invited fifty-seven wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.”

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”

Nothing really need be said. These types of errors crop up so frequently, in so many areas of life, it is truly amazing that we get anything done.

I now come to behavioral finance. I’ll work from the wikipedia definition as it provides at least a common ground for a definition and a starting point.

The first point that is important to recognise is that examining the data of Fx traders, however large or small, only looks at the data that presents their ‘demonstrated demand’ for means to achieve desired ends.

We have no way of knowing what those ends actually were. A simple example will hopefully make this clearer: “A” walks out of the front door of his house. Freeze frame. “A” has demonstrated a means, via leaving his house, to accomplish an end. What is that end? No-one knows. “A” gets on, and starts the engine of his Ducati. He displays more means. What is his end? No-one yet knows.

Returning to the historical data that Rhody wishes to access for statistical analysis. We have a group, made up of individuals, with a mixed bag of ‘outcomes’ which will be ranked via an arbitrary criteria of our researcher. Referring back to Mr. Soros and his various variables, what were an exhaustive list of variables to be contrasted against the arbitrary criteria, so that we can trace ‘backwards’ the outcomes, to the means, backwards to the ends or ordinal values held in the minds of the individuals?

Behavioral finance [economics] seeks via bounded rationality to explore first, the ordinal value rankings, which are unknown, second, to evaluate the decision making process that constitute the selection of means.

Just how – do they start, or complete, this rather impossible task?

This is how:

Another way to look at bounded rationality is that, because decision-makers lack the ability and resources to arrive at the optimal solution, they instead apply their rationality only after having greatly simplified the choices available. Thus the decision-maker is a satisficer, one seeking a satisfactory solution rather than the optimal one.[2] Simon used the analogy of a pair of scissors, where one blade is the “cognitive limitations” of actual humans and the other the “structures of the environment”; minds with limited cognitive resources can thus be successful by exploiting pre-existing structure and regularity in the environment.[1]

Notice, there is not even a pretense, or, worse, complete ignorance of the fact that the means selected, and we haven’t even reached their methodology yet, will be driven via their ordinal value system.

I’m very interested to hear from anyone who is involved in this field to explain this anomaly.

Trading discipline is one of those subjects that crops up on a pretty regular basis somewhere, and most individuals, if they have traded for any length of time, normally have a horror story or two to tell where discipline evaporated and was followed by money.

Daytraders are particularly prone to discipline blow-ups, not because of any systemic psychological failings attributed to the daytrading class, but rather due to the number of decisions that need to be made, and the speed at which they need to be made.

The napkin sketch reveals the truth of the matter. The odds of success fall more or less proportionally to the number of decisions that you have to make, or as the napkin puts it, as reliance on willpower and discipline increase, so falls the odds of success.

The answer then is to reduce the reliance on willpower & discipline. This can be easily accomplished by stretching the timeframe of your trades to a longer swing-trading methodology. I am not advocating a buy & hold forever Buffett strategy, and that I suspect is a false image of the man anyway. No essentially it means trading a longer timeframe and seeking to capture the majority of the trend within that timeframe.

In the newsletter I have a hybrid methodology that works through 2yr and 3mth timeframes, both interacting with each other. Now this is my personal choice, and although it is available as an option, its not a mandatory. The ‘signal’ however has been consistent for 7 weeks to date, and would have garnered you an 18% return to date. I have however been calling for long positions only since August 2010 [easily verified via blog]

The point is, in this case, there is only a weekly decision to make, possibly adding a trailing stop-loss that can be automated via GTC market orders, so that if ‘open profits’ are threatened, you are taken out of the market. Through automating you decisions, you no longer need make decisions under fire, in fact, you don’t actually need to watch each tick of the market at all if that’s not really your thing.

In summary, this solution is not about developing the mental discipline required, for the most part, you either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, it will fail you at the worst possible moment. Rather this is about adapting your trading to a place where failure of discipline is removed as a variable that must be dealt with under fire. Your decisions are made calmly when the market is closed, automated, and left alone.

The market conditions you to the wrong behaviour.

Insiders selling:

Bad news, stock-market bulls: Corporate insiders are selling their companies’ shares at an abnormally fast pace.

In fact, one measure of that selling activity shows insiders of NYSE- and AMEX-listed companies recently were selling at the fastest rate since data began being collected in the early 1970s, four decades ago.

On the theory that insiders know more about their companies’ prospects than do the rest of us, this is an ominous sign.

Corporate insiders, of course, are a company’s officers, directors and largest shareholders. They are required to file a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission more or less immediately upon buying or selling shares of their companies, and the SEC makes those reports public.

One firm that gathers and analyzes the data is Argus Research, which publishes its findings in the Vickers Weekly Insider Report. One indicator that the firm calculates is a ratio of the number of shares that insiders have sold in the open market to the number that they have purchased.

In the week ending last Friday, according to the latest issue of the Vickers report, this sell-to-buy ratio stood at 6.43 to 1. This is higher than 95% of other weeks’ readings over the last decade.

That’s ominous enough, but consider last week’s sell-to-buy ratio for just those issues listed on the NYSE or AMEX. That came in at 13.10 to 1, which is the highest reading for this ratio since when Vickers began collecting the data, which was October 1974.

Is there any way for a bull to wriggle out from underneath the weight of these high readings? Perhaps, though it’s not easy.

One counterargument bulls can make is that it’s entirely normal for insiders to sell when the market rallies, and therefore such selling does not carry particularly bearish significance.

But the stock market hasn’t exactly been rallying all that strongly. To be sure, the latest sell-to-buy ratio reflects last week, not the current one, and that week did have a better tone than the current one — but not all that great a tone.

In any case, the other occasions in recent years in which the sell-to-buy ratio rose to close to the same level it is today were on the heels of more or less uninterrupted rallies over the previous two or three months. That’s not the case now, of course, suggesting that insider selling this time around may not be so benign.

Another bullish counterargument is that the volume of insider transactions last week was light, as it usually is during earnings season. That’s because insiders are either reticent to buy or sell their companies’ shares in the days and weeks before their companies report earnings, for fear of being charged with acting improperly.

But I’m not sure how much weight to put on this argument. There still were several hundred firms with insider activity last week, and it’s unclear why earnings season would have discouraged just those insiders who otherwise were interested in buying.

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that the extensive Vickers database encompasses many other earnings seasons besides the current one. Also, the latest insider sell-to-buy ratio is higher than almost all comparable readings from those prior seasons.

Perhaps the strongest counterargument the bulls can muster at this point is that the insiders are not infallible. That indeed is true. Still, researchers report that they have been more right than wrong.

At a minimum, I think we can all agree it can’t be good news that insiders recently have been selling at such a fast pace.

Mark Hulbert is the founder of Hulbert Financial Digest in Annandale, Va. He has been tracking the advice of more than 160 financial newsletters since 1980.

Then look at the data.

The history of insider selling/buying has meant nothing. The insiders, as much as they might or might not know about their own company, hasn’t resulted in any great insights that can be extrapolated generally. They [insiders] seem to be affected by the same forces that apply to most of us. They like to buy at tops, and sell at the bottom.

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