Chris Rock Explains Bias Blindness

When the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced this past January and for the second year in a row included no minority nominees for any of the major performance categories, my first thought was here we go again. But my second thought was that Chris Rock would be hosting the Oscars’ award ceremony and that there might be fireworks.

I was not disappointed. Rock quickly let it be known that he would not be boycotting the ceremony (as he quipped during his Oscar monologue, “How come there’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something?”) but also that his opening monologue would be addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in a big way.

He sure did.

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The Great Myths of Investing

GreatMythsAs the great Mark Twain (may have) said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s particularly true in the investment world because we know, to a mathematical certainty, that avoiding errors provides more bang for the buck than making correct calls and generating outperformance. Fixing what we “know for sure that just ain’t so” provides a remarkable opportunity for investment success.

On the other hand, it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend enormous amounts of time and energy looking for a strategy or a manager that might (but probably won’t) outperform by just a little bit. As the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso put it, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” What we want to do is to find the next great investor, the terrific new strategy, the market sectors that are about to heat up or the next Apple. But what we should do is eliminate the things that make it so hard for us to get ahead. Accordingly, I will highlight some of the great myths of investing — ideas that lots of people, alleged experts even, claim to be true and act as as though are true “that just ain’t so.”

There are lots of myths at work in our lives, of course, falsehoods that are often believed and which are used to further a favored narrative. But George Washington didn’t really cut down a cherry tree and wax eloquent about not telling a lie as a consequence. Isaac Newton didn’t come up with his theory of gravity because an apple fell on his head. Columbus didn’t discover that the earth was round (that had been established centuries before). Ben Franklin didn’t fly a kite in a storm and discover electricity. And Einstein never flunked math. If any of these are news to you, I’m sorry to have had to break it to you.

Such myths persist because they “work” in some way. Their story elements — ease of recall, readily adaptability, explanatory power — make them useful and even important.  But utility and truth are hardly the same things and neither are utility and helpfulness.

So here is my list of the top ten great myths of investing. Since they aren’t true and are indeed damaging, if you can eliminate them from your mind and your investment process, your results will necessarily improve. Continue reading

Follow the Money

Hedge funds per CarlHal Holbrook had a wonderful supporting role in the Watergate saga All the President’s Men, a 1976 Alan J. Pakula film based upon the book of that name by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. Holbrook played the conflicted, chain-smoking, trench-coated, shadowy source known only as “Deep Throat” (over 30 years later revealed to have been senior FBI-man Mark Felt). Woodward’s meeting with his source when the investigation had bogged down is a terrific scene.

Sadly, Holbrook’s iconic line – “Follow the money” – was never spoken in real life and doesn’t appear in the book or in any Watergate reporting. Still, Woodward insists that the quote captures the essence of what Felt was telling him. “It all condensed down to that,” Woodward says. More importantly, it provides a profound truth. Indeed, when asked 25 years later on ”Meet the Press” what the lasting legacy of Watergate was, legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee replied with the words of screenwriter William Goldman, if not Mark Felt: ”Follow the money.” It provides good guidance for reporters generally and really good guidance when one is looking at the financial advice business.

With this important touchstone at the forefront, it’s crucial to recall that the financial advice business generally builds products and portfolios for marketing purposes rather than investment purposes. For the industry as a whole, “results” relate to sales far more than to what investor-clients end up getting. Accordingly, the idea is to play to people’s hopes, fears and prejudices rather than speak the (less marketable) truth. Moreover, if something can be positioned as new, novel or complex — and thus offering a plausible justification for a high fee — so much the better.
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Phi Beta Football Foibles

KAZOn November 24, 1951, Princeton defeated Dartmouth, 13-0, to win its 22nd straight football game and complete a second consecutive undefeated season for what was described, by the great writer John McPhee, as “Phi Beta Football.” In those days, Princeton still used a then-old, direct snap, pure power offense called the single wing even though most college teams were “mating the quarterback to the center of the line in the formation called ‘T.’” It was also the final game for Princeton tailback and legend Dick Kazmaier, the “Maumee Menace,” a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee and McPhee’s roommate. “Kaz” had been pictured on the cover of Time magazine that week (right) and would soon win the Heisman Trophy (the last Ivy League player to do so) in a landslide. But the game that day is not primarily remembered as having capped off an outstanding season and a brilliant career.

Instead, the legacy of that brisk late autumn afternoon contest rests upon two seemingly unrelated matters: allegations of intentionally dirty play by Dartmouth and our inability to perceive reality with any degree of objective accuracy, especially where we have a major emotional investment. Based upon various sources, the primary narrative from the game is that Dartmouth set out to injure Princeton players – particularly Kazmaier – and that after the Princeton star was injured and forced from the game in the second quarter, matters turned increasingly fractious. But that wasn’t the only proffered narrative. Continue reading


with-stupidNoah Smith (@Noahpinion on Twitter) made an interesting assertion yesterday about the purpose of argument. Smith began by noting Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s op-ed in Forbes in which he acts as a concern troll toward New York Times columnist (and noted economist himself) Paul Krugman because Krugman allegedly called Congressman Paul Ryan stupid. To be clear, Krugman’s primary point was not that Ryan is stupid, but that he is crooked, especially as it pertains to his budget proposals. Smith uses this context for looking at arguments in general, and he makes an excellent point.

[A]s a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions — two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” As the band Sparks once sang, “Everybody’s stupid — that’s for sure” [even though nobody wants to be called stupid]. What matters is going in the right direction — becoming less stupid, little by little.

But I think Smith’s ideal isn’t all that practical. To begin with, as Megan McArdle emphasizes, by calling one who disagrees with you stupid (even implicitly) “you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.” Thus “calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience” as well as a means of asserting superiority.

My sense is that the key element to this discussion is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of bias blindness, or selective perception.  We tend to see bias in others but not in ourselves. Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t really debatable — they’re objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus without excuse.  Continue reading

A Commitment to Truth

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)It seems to me, after a good deal of thought, reflection and research, that we have so much difficulty dealing with behavioral and cognitive bias in large measure because we build our belief structures precisely backwards. There’s nothing revelatory in that conclusion, obviously, because it is exactly what confirmation bias is all about. We like to think that we make (at least relatively) objective decisions based upon the best available evidence. But the truth is that we are ideological through-and-through and thus tend to make our “decisions” first — based upon our pre-conceived notions — and then backfill to add some supportive reasoning (which need not be very good to be seen as convincing).

I have been working on an infographic to try to illustrate the issue* and have come up with the following.

Commitment Hierarchy

The goal should be to build from the ground up — beginning with facts, working to conclusions and so on. Beliefs are interpretations of one’s conclusions about the facts. If more fervently held, they rise to the level of conviction and perhaps to the highest pyramid level, whereby one makes a major commitment to a particular cause, approach or ideology. These commitments are the things by which we tend to be defined.  Continue reading

Five Good Questions with Terry Odean

5 Good QuestionsTerrance Odean is the Rudd Family Foundation Professor of Finance at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the Journal of Investment Consulting editorial advisory board, of the Russell Sage Behavioral Economics Roundtable, and of the WU Gutmann Center Academic Advisory Board at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He has been an editor and an associate editor of the Review of Financial Studies, an associate editor of the Journal of Finance, a co-editor of a special issue of Management Science, an associate editor at the Journal of Behavioral Finance, a director of UC Berkeley’s Experimental Social Science Laboratory, a visiting professor at the University of Stavanger, Norway, and the Willis H. Booth Professor of Finance and Banking and Chair of the Finance Group at the Haas School of Business. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Odean studied Judgment and Decision Making with the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Daniel Kahneman. This led to his current research focus on how psychologically motivated decisions affect investor welfare and securities prices.

Today I ask (in bold) and Terry answers what I hope are Five Good Questions as part of my longstanding series by that name (see links below). Continue reading

That’s right, the women are smarter

Regular readers will recall that I began my Wall Street career on the ginormous fixed income trading floor of what was then Merrill Lynch in downtown Manhattan. Of the hundreds of people who called the seventh floor of the World Financial Center home during the workday then, astonishingly few were women and even fewer were traders – those who committed hundreds of millions of dollars of Merrill’s capital every single day. Even so, and despite rampant and often aggressive sexism, the women were always amongst the very best of the breed – smart, shrewd, savvy and discerning.

Part of that was to be expected. In such a male dominated, testosterone fueled world, only the very best women would be allowed access to that boy’s club in the first place. And only the very best of them would be allowed to stay. Still, the women traders I knew seemed more calculating and less prone to foolish errors than many of their male counterparts. They were also quicker to recognize and fix the errors they did make. And the research data backs up my anecdotal experience.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to my point. Last week I participated in an excellent conference entitled Diversifying Income and Innovations in Asset Allocation put on by S&P Dow Jones Indices in Beverly Hills. I spoke about retirement income strategies. Among the other presenters was Deborah Frame of Cougar Global Investments in Toronto. Her presentation focused on asset allocation and it was very enlightening.

During the cocktail hour, she and I were discussing the research literature that looks at the differences in men and women when it comes to investing. She took exception to my having characterized one of those differences, consistent with the literature, as women being more “risk averse” than men. She made the point that women are more “risk aware” – more cognizant of the risks they face and smarter about dealing with them (in general, of course). In her view, that’s why, for example, women so routinely asked for directions (in the days when phones didn’t come with GPS) when they weren’t sure where they were, and men so routinely refused to do so.

And, by golly, she was right. Since women generally are better investors, they should be portrayed positively (more “risk aware”) rather than negatively (more “risk averse”). Moreover, since men (again, in general) are more risk seeking and more likely to make foolish investment decisions, they should not be the standard to which women are compared. It should be the other way around. It was sexist of me to look at things otherwise.

Thanks, Deborah. Lesson learned (I hope).

We Are Less Than Rational

Investment Belief #3: We aren’t nearly as rational as we assume

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)Traditional economic theory insists that we humans are rational actors making rational decisions amidst uncertainty in order to maximize our marginal utility. Sometimes we even try to believe it.  But we aren’t nearly as rational as we tend to assume. We frequently delude ourselves and are readily manipulated – a fact that the advertising industry is eager to exploit.1

Watch Mad Men‘s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) use the emotional power of words to sell a couple of Kodak executives on himself and his firm while turning what they perceive to be a technological achievement (the “wheel”) into something much richer and more compelling – the “carousel.”

Those Kodak guys will hire Draper, of course, but their decision-making will hardly be rational. Homo economicus is thus a myth. But, of course, we already knew that. Even young and inexperienced investors can recognize that after just a brief exposure to the real world markets. The “rational man” is as non-existent as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and (perhaps) moderate Republicans.  Yet the idea that we’re essentially rational creatures is a very seductive myth, especially as and when we relate the concept to ourselves (few lose money preying on another’s ego). We love to think that we’re rational actors carefully examining and weighing the available evidence in order to reach the best possible conclusions.

Oh that it were so. If we aren’t really careful, we will remain deluded that we see things as they really are. The truth is that we see things the way we really are. I frequently note that investing successfully is very difficult. And so it is. But the reasons why that is so go well beyond the technical aspects of investing. Sometimes it is retaining honesty, lucidity and simplicity – seeing what is really there – that is what’s so hard. Continue reading

The Wyatt Earp Effect

The Big PictureMy first post for The Big Picture, the wonderful blog from Barry Ritholtz, also of The Washington Post and Bloomberg View, is now up. You may read it here. I hope you will.

The Wyatt Earp Effect