Knowledge Core

Neuroscience explains why it’s a zoo in there…

When advisers speak to clients about their investments they often explain how and why the fall in share prices will pass – and how and why their shares will regain value.  They show clients statistics, charts and graphs to prove that times are changing and portfolios will rise.  Despite this, clients shut down and start exhibiting counterproductive behaviours. Paradoxically, the more statistics, charts and graphs the adviser produces to reinforce his or her opinion, the more clients dig their heels in and make seemingly illogical decisions.

Cognitive Neuroscience concludes that 95% of our brain computation is unconscious and emotion driven. Nevertheless, people believe that their emotions and value judgements are facts based on logic. Furthermore, emotional reasoning assumes that what we are feeling is true and that the stronger the emotion the more true it is. In the main, we take these automatic thoughts as truisms and base our decisions on them, drawing on language to justify the decisions.

Since people aren’t trained in mastering their emotions in times of stress, most of the time they do not think critically and rationally. Their ‘reality’ overrides the generally accepted rule that ‘feelings aren’t facts’ – thus, what they feel becomes ‘the truth’.

Why is it that perfectly rational, intelligent clients often make irrational decisions? The answer lies in the brain, and the ‘zoo’ that sits in there. It’s a wildlife park in there! And it is where the decisions are made, especially financial decisions.  Let me explain…

Dr Paul Maclean’s Triune Brain

In the 1960s, Dr Paul Maclean established the current model of the brain, termed the ‘Triune Brain, to describe how the interplay of our emotions, thoughts and behaviours determines all of our decisions in the world – including our financial decisions. The brain has 3 distinct areas that co-operatively help us function at our maximum potential:

Reptilian Complex Brain – The Crocodile

  • The oldest part of the brain which is purely instinctual. It deals with survival.
  • Its role is controlling our reflexes, breathing and heartbeat.
  • Its singular focus is on survival, and it is activated when a threat is perceived.
  • This is the only part of the brain that runs automatically whether we are asleep or awake and it isn’t under Human control!
  • The reptilian brain makes decisions for us and then rationalises those decisions.
  • Although it takes input from the other 2 parts of the brain, it controls the final decision-making process.

Limbic System, Mammalian Brain – The Monkey

  • This encloses the reptilian brain and because of where it sits, it controls our hormones.
  • Because it houses the Amygdala it’s the area that creates and stores memories related to our emotional experiences. It’s the part of the brain that’s imperative for relationship forming.
  • This is the area that influences our behaviour and motivation.
  • The Limbic system processes our emotions and gut feelings. By joining feelings to instincts it classifies everything as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Neocortex, the Rational Thinking Brain – Mr Spock

  • This is the rational, analytical part of the brain that creates our thoughts, language, hopes, dreams and goals. It also decodes sensory information.
  • It controls speech and self consciousness, and rationally assesses situations and ideas.
  • It is also responsible for organising, planning and controlling the more primal impulses of the brain
  • It processes rational data and shares its deductions with the other 2 brains.

What does this have to do with money and financial planning?

All of this has a lot to do with money and financial planning.  In human beings, money and social status are linked to survival. When our survival mechanism gets triggered, the animal brain frantically makes connections between the current scenario and past experiences, and bases decisions on these experiences as well as residual remembered emotions.

This is why when we face something unexpected, our fear-based anxiety levels rise and the animal brain interprets this as danger.  When this occurs, the linkages between the rational and animal part of the brain close down.  The only role the rational brain then has is to make up the narrative to explain what is happening and to make decisions about what to do in this situation.

Next, the rational brain goes into instant shut-down; Mr Spock is removed from the decision-making process — leaving the crocodile and the monkey in charge.

Simply put, the animal brain is faster and more powerful than the rational brain. It has its own circuitry. It doesn’t rely on other parts of the brain to function. Because its role is to ensure our survival, the amygdala acts as the guard dog to the gates of the brain, and protects us from danger. Its decision criteria is ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, and self-defeating financial behaviours stem from this.

Someone in fight mode blames, and logic is shut down. They are looking for someone to blame for their fear ridden situation; the bank for lending them the money, the financial planner for recommending the strategy etc.  When we are in fight mode we don’t want to take personal responsibility. The brain just wants to blame, threaten, sue, lash out and the result is – aggressive behaviour, either overt or covert.

Someone in flight mode wants to get as far away from the stressor as possible. In this scenario the client is going to sell the shares immediately, or any other action consistent with the ‘cut and run’ model.

Then there’s freeze mode which is when overwhelm kicks in and clients take no action. They shut down and stop looking at investments, stop following the news, ignore recommendations from advisers. When clients are in freeze mode they are literally immobilised – overwhelmed and fearful.

Add to this information the phenomenon of Loss Aversion

Kahneman & Tversky researched the psychology of decision making and uncovered the phenomenon of ‘Loss Aversion’ which is that it is twice as painful emotionally to lose something than it is to hope for a potential gain.

Loss aversion makes us irrational when it comes to evaluating risk. It is the fear of loss that drives us into illogical decisions like liquidating shares into cash.  Loss aversion ensures we stop taking rational risks because we focus far too much on the possibility of loss without considering the probability and potential positive outcomes.

Emotionally, hanging onto what we’ve got as long as it’s enough for survival is far more important to us than the potential of making money in the future. This fear of loss, this loss aversion, also explains why we’ll hang onto shares as their share prices fall and sell once the share price is rising.  We simply don’t want to accept the loss.

When our decisions are driven by survival based emotions, the decisions are the least practical and relevant. In fact Antonio Demasio discovered that people who couldn’t access emotions due to neurological issues made significantly more money than ‘normal’ subjects. The subjects with neurological issues gambled 85.2% of the time after loss. Losing money made them more likely to re-invest because they realised that investing was the best way to recoup their losses. Not listening to their emotions gave them a crucial advantage.

As advisers, what can you do?

  1. Recognise that the client is in emotional lockup and that the brain is inclined to act irrationally.
  2. As funny as it sounds, actually help clients to take a few deep breaths. Breathing deeply slows the system down and helps the brain to come back on-line, bringing the reasoning part of brain back into action. It helps to slowdown the reptilian (non thinking brain).
  3. By helping clients strengthen their mammalian brain, advisers can help clients evaluate the accuracy of their thinking by showing them the evidence and by engaging them in questions. What’s the evidence that the world is going to come crashing down? Is there a better explanation? What’s the worst thing that could happen? What will happen if they do take their money out? Or put it under their mattress? Or stash it in the freezer? Or let it halve in term deposits?
  4. Don’t give clients the opportunity to make rash decisions. As it takes 20 minutes to calm the animal brain to enable the rational brain to take control; ensure that there is a delay between their emotional reaction and their decision making.  Give them the 20 minutes to redirect the power to the neocortex (thinking brain).

Train their brain to anticipate the market… let them know…

The emotional brain can be trained to suppress its hardwired survival responses and clients’ long-term financial health is dependent on their ability to do that.Training will help them master their responses in times of stress. By way of example, horses are animals that are easily scared and they must be trained to remain calm in crowds so when they are faced with an angry crowd they won’t be spooked.  In the same way, our police and defence forces are trained to remain calm in a crisis so that their rational responses are optimised.

Similarly, we can train clients to recognise potentially stressful financial situations before they occur so they are prepared to have their rational brain step in or exert control over the animal brain. It is good for them to understand their emotional responses to stress – for example sweating, an ill feeling in the pit of the stomach, an inability to remain still and other signs of anxiety. Each person has a different physiological reaction to the levels of hormones released during stress and research has shown that the body registers stress and fear long before the rational mind is aware of it. If the client can recognise these symptoms they can take appropriate action.

After delivering what you believe is ‘negative news’, request that the client takes ten deep breaths while they think about the news (and perhaps you can join them in this). By creating this break between reaction and action you are giving their rational brain time to step in. Remember, intense emotions overwhelm the brain. It’s like a flood of emotions.  Creating a gap enables the brain to stand still.

As a financial planner you can train your clients by drills about how shares move and the standard deviation they might expect on their returns. For example, ‘You should expect it to go up x% and down by y%, and that’s normal’. If you have pre-conditioned your client with this logic, when their fear kicks in, their minds won’t panic because the logical mind will stay in control.

Some general guidelines

Numbers bamboozle the brain and speak directly to the neocortex.  Although it is the most logical part of the brain it has the least amount of power in the decision-making process.  Research now shows that if the brain is given a highly challenging and complex problem, its computing path takes misleading shortcuts to chunk the information.  By doing this it hopes to make the information more manageable. Whilst this process is underway we start to make irrational decisions and the brain’s preferences lead us to make poor decisions. In short, it is not wise to bombard clients with facts!

“We sing the praises of logic and facts. We applaud information and its offshoot, making informed decisions. What we forget is the prefrontal cortex’s limitations. The more we are overloaded with facts, the worse our decisions become.”

The brain functions and stores information relationally, our memories are stored in a form that captures the essence of the conversation and the moment rather than the specific details. Our brain literally remembers and learns through stories.

The key to helping your clients to make better decisions is to ensure you have a range of stories or metaphors that you can draw on in discussions with them. In this way you move them away from the fight/flight options.

Feelings aren’t facts… but they certainly are a reality…

You need to understand the emotional dynamics of decision-making and train your clients from the outset.  If you put too much emphasis on charts and facts, you are dismissing their emotions. Remember, it is emotions which drive decision-making; not logic.  Remember that if you drag out the charts and quote figures you will appear to be dismissing their feelings, and when someone’s feelings are dismissed they shut down. It is as simple as that. Instead, the best option is to take a different approach:

  1. Reach for the forms, and as you start speaking to them, begin to discuss the realities of losing their savings – helping them to discern reality vs panic.
  2. With their life expectancy sitting at say 17-20 years, discuss the realities of the share market not rising again based on history of the market over the past 100 years; or if they believe that XYZ Company is going to go ‘broke’ in that time.
  3. Highlight the returns and benefits of stockpiling the retirement funds under the pillow versus the returns term deposits deliver over the long term (Rule of 72).
  4. Give the animal brain time to settle and the neocortex time to emerge and return to rational thinking.

When we try to change someone’s mind, especially one driven by fear, the brain literally shuts down. It pushes back and stops taking in the information. The first step is to understand what the brain does and why we as humans act in seemingly irrational ways when our primal needs are triggered. Part of the adviser’s role is, I believe, to empower clients to deal with the natural fluctuations of the market and life’s stressors by providing them with the tools to do so. By training our clients’ brains, we are preparing them to remain calm in the face of overwhelming feelings. In this way both advisor and client create a relationship that equips them to make decisions in the client’s best interests at all times, no matter the circumstances.

Author: Adette Goldberg

Adette guides companies through the tender, proposal and presentation process, and over the past 2 years has worked on and won 17 of the last 20; delivering an 85% win rate for her clients. Unique in her field, Adette’s approach focuses on the ‘unspoken’ (what’s not being said, yet to be discovered and used as a winning tool), the relationships, and the entire decision-making process. In short, she loves the hunt!

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