The Elephant In The Room: How The Financial Industry’s Shunning Of Emotions Fails Its Clients

I don’t think professor Richard Thaler is going to return my calls anymore. Sure, he was gracious enough to give me an interview after his most recent book, Misbehaving, a surprisingly readable history of the field of behavioral economics, was published. But now that he’s won a Nobel Prize, something tells me I’m not on the list for the celebration party.  

(Although, if that party hasn’t happened yet, professor, I humbly accept your invitation!)

But I’m still celebrating anyway, because Thaler is a hero of mine and I believe that the realm of behavioral economics–and behavioral science more broadly–can and should reframe the way we look at our interaction with money, personally and institutionally, as well as the business of financial advice.

Behavioral Economics In Action

The Elephant and the Rider

Of course, even if you’re meeting Thaler for the first time, his work likely has already played a role in your life in one or more of the following ways:

  • Historically, your 401(k) (or equivalent) retirement savings plan has been “opt-in,” meaning you proactively had to make the choice–among many others–to do what we all know is a good idea (save for the future). But our collective penchant for undervaluing that which we can’t enjoy for many years to come led most of us to default to inaction. Thanks largely to Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s observations in the book Nudge, more and more companies are moving to an “opt-out” election, automatically enrolling new employees in the plan with a modest annual contribution.  
  • Better yet, many auto-election clauses gradually increase an employee’s savings election annually. Because most receive some form of cost-of-living pay increase in concert with the auto-election bump, more people are saving more money without even feeling it!
  • Additional enhancements, like a Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA), help ensure that these “invisible” contributions are automatically invested in an intelligently balanced portfolio or fund instead of the historical default, cash, which ensures a negative real rate return.  
  • Some credit card awards now automatically deposit your “points” in an investment account while some apps, like, “round up” your electronic purchases and throw the loose virtual change in a surprisingly sophisticated piggy bank.

No, you’re not likely to unknowingly pave your way to financial independence, but thanks to the work of professor Thaler and others, many are getting a great head start without making a single decision.

What is most shocking to me, however, is the lack of application–or the downright misapplication–of behavioral economics in the financial services industry.  

Danica Patrick On Finding The Motivation For Financial Responsibility

I recently asked race car driver Danica Patrick if she thinks there is any validity to the adage that more money simply creates more problems, as the near epidemic documented in professional sports would seem to indicate.

I wanted to know whether she has seen this firsthand, and whether it has been a challenge for her.

Danica Patrick (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

“I can see how some would have difficulty managing the money they earn — especially if they do not have an existing mindset geared towards savings,” Patrick said.

“But for me, more money presents more responsibility,” she added.

We were talking because she’s advocating on behalf of Life Happens, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of life insurance. But to Patrick, it all flows from a mindset about personal responsibility and holistic self-care.  

“You have to take care of your body by working out and preparing for the future to make sure that it’s healthy,” she told me.

“Later, you do things to prepare yourself mentally, to make sure that you can handle all situations and have peace of mind and have perspective and know what’s important. So then why wouldn’t you also take that approach with what it takes to operate in the society that we live in–money?”

Good question, Danica. It seems so logical, yet year-after-year, I’ll bet two of the resolutions most often broken are related to maintaining health and finances.

So why do we have so much trouble doing these things that we all seem to agree we should?

Well, for one, we’ve learned through the fields of behavioral economics and finance that knowing what to do isn’t the issue. Knowing what to do is a System 2 process, as Daniel Kahneman teaches us. System 2 is our brain’s intellectual center that processes information.  

Doing what we know, however, is a System 1 process. This is our emotional processor, where the will resides. System 1 is notorious for resisting our well-conceived plans, but it can also be a powerful ally, as it’s where resiliency is fueled.

Jonathan Haidt gave us the analogy that System 1 is like an (emotional) Elephant while System 2 is the elephant’s (reflective) Rider. When the two are in conflict, we all know who wins; but when the team is aligned, they are a formidable force.

The Rider is in charge of what to do and how to do it, but the Elephant only cares why.  

The big challenge when it comes to getting and staying healthy, physically or financially, is that the vast majority of information out there is System 2 stuff–what and how. Think: “Lose 50 pounds!” or “Make a million dollars!”

But System 1 is the boss, the “decider,” and the source of resolve.  

When Patrick decided to become a race car driver, she chose the course her life would take with System 1. Then she used System 2 to chart that course.

When people said she was too small (read: a woman), she appealed to her System 1 to stay the course while plotting with her System 2 how she’d prove them wrong.

When it comes to your health, you know you should get more sleep, watch your diet and exercise, right?

When it comes to your financial life, you know you should spend less than you make, pay your bills and invest for the future, right?

But why?

Well, let’s start with an easy one, the one Danica Patrick is advocating for: life insurance.

Why do you need life insurance?

Well, maybe you don’t. If you’re independently wealthy and/or no one relies on you financially, then you don’t need life insurance. (There are a couple reasons why you might still want it, but they’re outliers and probably don’t apply to you.)

If, on the other hand, you’re like most of us–still on the path to financial independence  with people in your life who would suffer financially if you left this Earth tomorrow–you probably do need life insurance.

Patrick saw a twenty-something friend in racing lose his life on the track–that was more than enough motivation.

But perhaps you’ve heard some version of this “why” story, and it didn’t inspire the Elephant to apply for a life insurance policy. It’s likely because the very next thing that happened involved the Elephant getting spooked by all of the “whats” and “hows” of life insurance.

There are so many life insurance companies and so many more life insurance salespeople, all so highly motivated to sell you too many types of policies, that the end result is way too much information.The Rider might enjoy the mental gymnastics, but it simply tires the Elephant out.

So if you recognize the need for life insurance but you’re overwhelmed by the information overload, let me offer a simple life insurance plan that will take care of most:

Multiply your salary by 15 and buy that much 20-year term life insurance.  

Why? (Since I’ve argued that is the operative question…) Well, it’s likely your salary that needs to be replaced if you’re gone, and a multiple of 15 should create a sufficient pot of money that, conservatively invested, will replicate your income for a good while. 

Why term life? Because if you’re healthy, even though 15 times your income is a big life-changing number, the premiums tend to be small enough that they won’t change your lifestyle. That’s not the case with most forms of permanent life insurance.

And why 20-year term? Because for most, their need for life insurance will expire before they do (thankfully!). For most, 20 years in, the kids are out of the house and retirement is close. If you’re just starting a family, you might want to extend some of your coverage to 30-year term, and if you expect to retire in 10 years, get 10-year term.

And if you still need some additional motivation to get that Elephant moving, a final word from Danica Patrick:

There are only so many things in life that we can control – do everything you can to position yourself for success by being fit. When you’re taking care of yourself, whether it’s your health or what you eat or your finances, it’s about self-worth. Never doubt that you are worth it and invest in yourself and your future both physically and financially.”

Adaptation Devaluation: Why A U2 Concert Is Better Than A New Couch

My favorite discovery in the field of behavioral economics confirms what we already knew deep down, even if it contradicts “common sense”–that experiences are more valuable than stuff. I recently put this finding to the test:

Concert of a Lifetime

“You’re crazy.”

Those were my wife’s words when I called her from the road, rushing to discuss what I termed “the concert of a lifetime.”

I’d just learned that living legends U2 were touring in support of the 30th anniversary of their most celebrated album, “The Joshua Tree.”  

(Photo by Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

The greatest live band of a generation playing the soundtrack of my youth from start to finish.

Andrea was on board with going to the show–she’s a big fan, too. But what invited her claim of insanity was my insistence that we take the whole family to Seattle to see the show. We live in Charleston. South Carolina.

You Won’t Get Fooled Again: Understanding the Availability Heuristic in Investing

Originally in ForbesYou’re no fool. But let’s imagine for a second that a major public figure said something—something false—over and over (and over) again. Regardless of its questionable veracity, is there a chance you’d be more likely to believe the proclamation simply because you’ve heard it often and recently?

Like it or not, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

You and I are more likely to believe something is true when it’s readily available—that is, when we’ve heard it frequently and, especially, when we’ve heard it lately. This phenomenon is dubbed the “availability heuristic,” and even though it was discovered and named (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) more than 40 years ago, it likely hasn’t caught on in the broader public awareness because its title includes the word “heuristic.”
Nonetheless, the availability heuristic’s power to persuade is not lost on marketers, salespeople, lobbyists and politicians. They use it on us all the time. But let’s explore the errant biases in investing, in particular, that while readily available often lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Active vs. Passive

The debate rages (and no doubt will continue to do so) over whether active stock pickers are able to beat their respective benchmark indices. The implications seem simple: If fee-charging money managers aren’t persistently outperforming their benchmarks, we likely should not be paying them for underperformance, right?

How Money Destroys Relationships

Originally in ForbesMoney destroys relationships because people can’t compete with money. Money, after all, doesn’t disappoint you, or express disappointment with you.

It’s not that money is inherently bad or evil, but it’s not inherently good or righteous either. Money is simply a neutral tool that can be used well or poorly. It only has the value—the personality and the relational standing—that we give it.

One of the few criticisms I have of the movement to explore the psychology of money is its use of the phrase “your relationship with money.” Unintentionally, this gives money entirely too much credit by implying personhood. Indeed, if you have a “relationship” with money, you’re likely elevating it unnecessarily, and maybe even subconsciously devaluing those in your life who actually have a heartbeat.

How did we get here, to the point where we’ve personified—and in some cases deified—the “almighty” dollar?

Simple Money Is Here

A No-Nonsense Guide to Personal Finance

Unfortunately, personal finance has been reduced to a short list of “Dos” and a long (long) list of “Don’ts” typically based on someone else’s priorities in life, not yours.

But personal finance is actually more personal than it is finance.

Learn More and Get Your Copy of Simple Money

That’s why what works great for someone else may not work as well for you. Money management is complex because we are complex. Therefore, it is in better understanding ourselves—our history with money and what we value most—that we are able to bring clarity to even the most confounding decisions in money and life. As an advisor, speaker and author, I’ve made a career out of demystifying complex financial concepts into understandable, doable actions. In this practical book, I’ll show you how to

  • find contentment by redefining “wealth”
  • establish your priorities, articulate your goals, and find your calling
  • design a personal budgeting system you can (almost) enjoy
  • create a simple, world-class investment portfolio that has beaten the pros
  • manage risk—with and without insurance
  • ditch the traditional concept of retirement and plan for financial independence
  • cheat death and build a legacy
  • and more

Learn More About The Author

The problem with so much personal finance advice is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, often with the goal of selling you things you don’t need. Tim Maurer never plays that game. His straightforward, candid and yes — simple — prescriptions are always right on target. Jean Chatzky
financial editor of NBC's 'Today Show'

Here’s what others are saying about Simple Money:

“Reading this book is like having your own personal financial advisor.”—Kimberly Palmer, senior money editor at US News & World Report; author of The Economy of You

“You can’t manage your money without thinking about your life—and the system that Tim proposes can make a radical difference in both.”—Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The $100 Startup and The Happiness of Pursuit

“Maurer teaches us how to literally redefine wealth in a way that will both honor your life values and priorities while simultaneously reducing your stress.”—Manisha Thakor, CFA, director of wealth strategies for women for the BAM Alliance; writer for The Wall Street Journal

“Amen! Amen! Amen! Simplicity is a gift . . . and this book offers it by the truckload!”—Carl Richards, New York Times columnist;  author of The One-Page Financial Plan

Read more praise for ‘Simple Money’

How To Know When To Get Out Of The Market

Originally published CNBCHas the market’s recent volatility worried you? Me too. It’s inevitable. Apparently, it’s how we’re wired. But better understanding that wiring can give us a clear decision-making framework to help us know if and when to get out of the market.

The field of behavioral finance has demonstrated that the pain we derive from market losses impacts us twice as much as the pleasure we feel from market gains. For this reason, investors are well served to name and address these emotions instead of setting them aside as they (unfortunately) have been taught.

We’ve all heard of the cost/benefit decision-making model, but “cost” and “benefit” are intellectual constructs too distant from the actual emotions that drive our decision-making. We need to address the gut—the “pain” and the “pleasure” associated with a tough decision. The following four-step model seeks to merge the head and the gut. And while it’s applicable in virtually any either/or scenario, let’s specifically address the decision to stay invested in the market or to move to cash:

Market Decision Image Cropped

1) The pain of staying invested is that I could lose even more.

Behavioral Economist Richard Thaler’s Message to Advisors: ‘Nudge For Good’

Originally in MoneyDaniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky legitimized behavioral economics—the study of how people really behave around money, as opposed to how economists say a rational person ought to behave.

Then Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein applied the lessons of behavioral economics to everyday life with their book Nudge. The duo nudged so successfully that in recent years, their prescriptions have been put to work in corporate retirement plans—and even public policy—on a global scale.

When I spoke to Thaler to discuss his newest book, Misbehaving, a series of stories documenting the rise of behavioral economics, he told me that he has a message for those who seek to employ his methods:

“Nudge, for good.”

And why does he say that?

Short-Term Memory Threatens Long-Term Success

When it comes to investing, rely on long-term wisdom

Originally published CNBCWhen it comes to the market’s peaks and troughs, investors often don’t react as rationally as they might think. In fact, in times of extreme volatility or poor performance, emotions threaten to commandeer our common sense and warp our memory.

It’s called “recency bias.”

What the heck is recency bias?

Recency bias is basically the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future.

It causes us to unhelpfully overweight our most recent memories and experiences when making investment decisions. We expect that an event is more likely to happen next because it just occurred, or less likely to happen because it hasn’t occurred for some time.

This bias can be a particular problem for investors in financial markets, where mindful forgetfulness amid an around-the-clock media machine is more important today than ever before.

Try thinking about it this way. In the high-visibility and media-saturated arena of pro sports, every gifted athlete knows that the key to success can be found in two short words: “next play.”

Riding the Elephant

Mastering Decision-Making in Money and Life

Originally in ForbesThe most compelling findings regarding financial decision-making are found not in spreadsheets, but in science. A blend of psychology, biology and economics, much of the research on this topic has been around for years. Its application in mainstream personal finance, however, is barely evident. Perhaps a simple analogy will help you begin employing this wisdom in money and life: The Rider and the Elephant.

First, a little background.

Systems 1 and 2

Daniel Kahneman’s tour de force, Thinking, Fast and Slow, leveraged his decades of research with Amos Tversky into practical insight. Most notably, it introduced the broader world to “System 1” and “System 2,” two processors within our brains that send and receive information quite differently.

System 1 is “fast, intuitive, and emotional” while System 2 is “slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” The big punch line is that even though we’d prefer to make important financial decisions with the more rational System 2, System 1 is more often the proverbial decider.

Many other authors have built compelling insights on this scientific foundation. They offer alternative angles and analogies, but I believe the most comprehendible comes from Jonathan Haidt.