Neurofinance: How People Make Decisions

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In this book we have argued that cognition and emotion are powerful influences on people’s decisions. Traders are, of course, no different. This chapter begins by considering what we know about what sets a successful trader apart from other people. We have all contemplated the oft-debated question of nature versus nurture in explaining whether a person thrives or fails. In this final chapter, we further investigate where choices come from. The evidence suggests that there are both environmental and biological foundations. The chapter begins in Section 20.2 with a discussion of expertise, namely, what makes a skillful trader? Cognitive skills are honed through practice and repetition, but emotion also has a significant role. Next, in Section 20.3, we turn to the emerging field of neurofinance. Using imaging technology, researchers are contributing to our understanding of how people make decisions. In Section 20.4, we describe some of the insights recently provided by neurofinance researchers. These researchers have found that cognition and emotion have complementary effects. Traders whose emotions appear to be in balance perform the best. Uncertainty and risk are experienced differently by our brains, as are gains versus losses and risk versus return. The chapter concludes in Section 20.5 with some practical advice.

Consider the following situation. You are at a large concert and run into a good friend, Molly. Of course, you recognize her face immediately. Now think about this. What if, instead, you know Molly is at the concert but is seated across the venue. The friend you came to the concert with, Amy, is going to look for Molly, but the two have never met. You do your best at describing Molly to Amy. What’s the chance that Amy will be able to identify Molly among thousands of concert goers? Not too likely. Much of what we know we cannot describe in words. A face is a very complex thing, and we simply do not have enough words to explicitly describe one particular person very accurately. Language is categorical, whereas the distinguishing features of two similar faces may be fuzzy. Some cognitive scientists assert that people have knowledge that they cannot verbalize, referred to as implicit learning or tacit knowledge. Brett Steenbarger argues that traders also have information about markets that they cannot adequately describe in words. Like a human face, markets are probably more complex than the language we have to describe them. Does this mean we need a finer grid with which to describe markets? Or, does this view suggest that we need to better understand how traders make decisions? Excellence in most fields requires expertise. How do we define expertise? Usually we think in terms of relative performance so that those at the top of their game are considered to be the experts. Because of tacit knowledge, an expert chess player or pro football player often knows instinctively what the best move is, perhaps without any cognitive evaluation whatsoever. Recall in our discussion of the foundations of emotion in Chapter 7 that psychologists believe that emotions can develop completely independently from cognition. In other words, you can feel fear without first cognitively recognizing what is making you fearful. While observing a market, a trader may instinctively know the move he wants to make. Steenbarger notes that in many instances traders will make similar buy or sell decisions and then, ex post, provide very different descriptions of the information that led to the decision. The traders saw the same information, acted the same way, but understood their behavior quite differently. Perhaps a trader makes a decision based on instinct with no preceding cognitive evaluation. Afterward, the trader generates an explanation that is cognitively consistent with his expectations. Steenbarger argues that “the successful trader feels the market but does not become...
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