Tag: finance

Facing the truth is a terrible way to be happy.

Jan 12

There are times when uncertainty is unbearable: waiting to hear about a school or job acceptance or pacing outside the operating theatre of a loved one. But other times we’re a lot happier being in the dark – or at least partially shaded.

Many of us have spent time beside a pool. And you have probably wondered: what are the odds that no kids have peed in the pool (or adults, for that matter). When pressed, we’d have to admit that the odds that the pool is peefree are close to zero, but the lack of absolute certainty allows us to relax and swim anyway. We may comfort ourselves with some fuzzy thought about chlorine or the immense volume of the pool relative to a few bladders, and our concerns slip away.

Now, compare this with watching a kid stand by the pool and pee into it. Throw in some swimming trunks around his knees and a frantic, embarrassed parent scooping him up, alas, too late. Now you’re no longer able to hold onto the slight possibility that the pool is free of urine. The relative volume of the water in the pool is now little comfort when you just saw a kid pee in it. So, how happy are to take a quick dip?

When things are very close to being certain but we are still able to pretend otherwise, we are experts at using this window, small though it may be, and expanding it. For example, lots of people don’t wash their hands after visiting the lavatory, we all know this, but we can happily imagine that everyone that cooks and serves in a restaurant we patronize does. At least until we see a server leave the stall, straighten their shirt in the mirror, and walk out without so much as a rinse. Dinner is served ruined! It’s only when we face direct evidence like this that we can no longer put our heads in the sand.

This also happens on a broader scale when we hold something or someone in high esteem and then something undesirable happens. Consider the five second rule for food: it’s just enough time that we can pretend that nothing has sullied our snack. Or think about people who “go vegetarian” after reading books like Eating Animals, as opposed to their friends who choose not to read it (sort of like poolgoers who look the other way in order not to see the kid in action). We could also consider all the people on both sides of the political spectrum who don’t listen (with any degree of earnestness) to the opinions and facts presented by the other side.  Ignorance may be bliss, but often it’s just a speck of reality that ruins our ignorance.

JP Morgan Chase’s loss of several billion dollars in 2012 was a similar situation. It’s difficult to imagine that over the last five years we were able to view any company as relatively pure, which is how many viewed JP Morgan Chase. It seemed likely that they, like other banking companies, probably had some skeletons in their closet, but we didn’t know for sure, and so they continued on with their relatively good reputation. In the race to the bottom of the banks, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon got the best title a banker these days can get: “the least-hated banker in America”. Now we have about three billion dollars to prove the contrary.

While it’s true that for a company that size, three billion a relatively small amount to lose (and surely their accountants could have hidden it), the problem is that now we have direct evidence that they’re not perfect. Once again we were forced to see reality, and we can no longer avoid the knowledge that the pool is polluted – even if the damage was done by the least-hated character. And I suspect that for many the events at JP Morgan Chase further polluted not only their opinion about that company, but also about banking generally.

Recently published in Wired UK.

The Facebook IPO: A Note to Mark Zuckerberg; or, With “Friends” Like Morgan Stanley, Who Needs Enemies?

May 16

I just received this letter from a friend in the banking industry. He prefers to remain anonymous (you’ll see why soon enough).

Dear Mark,

There’s been a lot of ballyhoo recently about your IPO and your choice of investment bankers. Indeed, a war was fought by the banks to win your “deal of the decade.”  As reported in the press, the competition was so intense banks slashed their fees in order to win your business. Facebook is “only” paying a 1% “commission” for its IPO rather than the 3% typically charged by the banks.

Congratulations, Mr. Zuckerberg! On the surface it appears your pals in investment banking have given you a quite a deal!… Or have they?

Let’s take a closer look and see what you’re getting for your money.

To start, your bankers have the task of selling 388 million Facebook shares to the public. In return, these banks will receive $150 million for their efforts.  Morgan Stanley will get the largest share of that amount—approximately $45 million. But is $45 million all that Morgan Stanley makes off your deal?

Before we answer this question, let’s first dissect the sales pitch that Morgan Stanley probably gave you to justify “only” the $150 million fee. We’ll look at what they told you, and then what that actually means.

1) We will raise the optimal amount of money for the company, for our 1% fee. (Translation: How great is it that Zuckerberg believes he got a great deal by getting us down to a 1% fee! We can’t believe he got hoodwinked into agreeing to any level of what are actually variable commission fees.)

2) The definition of a successful deal is having a good price “pop” on the first day of trading. This will make all parties happy and you, Mark, look like a rock star. (Translation: No one benefits more than us if Facebook’s share price rises significantly on day one. That first day price “pop” will take money directly out of your pocket and puts it in ours and those of our “best friends”—not yours or the public stockholders. We will, at almost all costs, make this happen.)

3) This is a very complicated process, especially for such a large company, but we are here to successfully guide you through it. (Translation: It actually takes the same amount of work to do a large IPO as a small one. Thus for approximately the same amount of work we’re doing for Facebook, we sometimes get only $10 million—$140 million less than we’re making on Zuckerberg’s IPO.)

4) We will perform due diligence on your company to make sure the business and its finances are as they seem. (Translation: While it certainly does take some time and effort to perform reasonable due diligence, Facebook is a very large and well-known company, and we have done this same procedure hundreds of times.)

5) We will write a prospectus that outlines Facebook’s strategy, business plan, financials, and risks, and we will get it approved by the SEC. (Translation: Per the regulatory guidelines, a prospectus is largely a boilerplate document; for the most part, it’s just a lot of cutting and pasting.)

6) Once this prospectus is completed and with input from the Facebook team, we will come up with “the range” or the approximate price we think your IPO shares should be sold at to the fund managers. (Translation: The price of your IPO will be determined by where and how we can best optimize our (secret) profits on the deal.)

7) We believe the best shareholders are large fund managers, as they will become long-term holders of Facebook stock.  However, at your request, we will allocate 25% of the IPO shares to sell to individual investors. (Translation: There are 835 million Facebook users worldwide. One could argue that what is best for Facebook would be to let all of Facebook’s legally eligible customers enter orders to buy Facebook stock. Then through the broker of their choosing, they could enter the quantity of shares they want to buy and the price they want to pay, just like the fund managers do—or are supposed to do. More on this scenario below.)

8) Our 10-day sales process will begin. For this important “road show,” you will be introduced to our large fund manager clients. These fund managers will receive our pitch for why they should buy your stock, and we will assess their interest and at what price. (Translation: Far from being long-term holders, many of our large fund manager “best friends” will, as soon as Facebook shares start trading, sell (or “flip”) for a windfall profit on all the underpriced shares we’ve given them. We’ll enable this by creating a perceived “feeding frenzy” for the stock by putting out an artificially low initial estimate ($28 to $35 per share) for where we think the IPO will be priced.  We will then raise that estimate during the road show. Rumors about this begin to circulate over the next day or so.)

9) At the end of the road show on the night before the IPO, we will review the overall supply and demand for the stock and then “price” the shares. This is the price at which the large fund managers will receive their “winning” Facebook shares. (Translation: The price of the stock is already known. For the past few years, Facebook shares have been actively trading on such venues as SecondMarket and SharePost.)

10) And finally, we will put a mechanism, called a Greenshoe, in place that “supports” your share price after the IPO. (Translation: Thank God Zuckerberg doesn’t understand one of the greatest investment banking profit enhancing creations of all time—“The Greenshoe.” The Greenshoe will likely be our most profitable part of this deal.  It’s a secret windfall, and although we market it to Facebook as a method to stabilize its share price, it’s really just another way for us, with little effort, to make huge amounts of money.)

We’re not done yet, Mark. Now, I’d like to dig a bit deeper into what’s going to happen and show you all the additional ways your banker friends and their large fund manager clients are going to make oodles of money off your deal.

1) Morgan Stanley only gives Facebook shares (“golden tickets”) to their best client “friends.”  In other words, it’s no coincidence that Morgan Stanley’s biggest fund manager clients get the bulk of the shares offered in this kind of deal.

2) How do you become best friends with Morgan Stanley?  There are lots of ways, such as trading tens of millions of shares with them or using the firm as your prime broker.

3) I’m sure there are a lot of conversations going on right now between Morgan Stanley’s salespeople and their clients. These conversations are probably along the lines of (wink-wink) “before we allocate our Facebook shares, we’d like to ask first if you plan to do more trading with us over the next week to six months….”

4) Let’s assume that 50 of Morgan Stanley’s “best friends” trade an extra 2 million shares so they can get access to more shares of the Facebook IPO. Let’s also assume that the average commission these clients pay to Morgan Stanley is 2 cents per share. Well, those extra trades will dump an additional $2 million dollars into Morgan’s coffers.

5) Now comes the part where Morgan Stanley actually gives free money to its friends. If the Facebook IPO is like the majority of other recent Internet offerings, here’s what Morgan Stanley will likely do.  They know Facebook will be a “hot” deal. Especially, with all of the “5% orders” coming in, there will be huge demand for Facebook shares.  My prediction is that Morgan Stanley will “price” Facebook at approximately $40 per share.  This is the price at which Morgan Stanley’s “best friends will be able to buy the bulk of the 388 million shares offered.

6) Now let’s now assume that Facebook shares open for trading at $50—a lower percentage premium than Groupon’s opening share-price “pop.”

7) Let’s assume that one of Morgan Stanley’s “best friends” decides to sell 3 million shares right after the opening at $50 per share. That “best friend” will instantaneously make a $30 million profit.  That’s right, a $30 million profit.

8) Here’s a question for you Mark. If Morgan Stanley’s “best friends” are selling Facebook shares at $50, who’s buying them? The answer is your “friends,” individual investors, most of whom are your customers.

9) Now for the final insult—the Greenshoe. Technically speaking, the Greenshoe gives your investment banks a 30-day option to purchase up to 15% more stock from Facebook than was registered and sold in the IPO. In layman’s terms, this means that, over the next 30 days, your “best friends” at the investment banks are able to buy approximately 50 million of your shares at $40 per share.

10) As in our example above, let’s say Facebook shares do trade at $50 soon after the IPO. Now I am a simple person, but if I were given the opportunity to buy something at $40 that I could immediately sell at $50, I would do it all day, every day…. And so will the investment banks.  The Greenshoe actually gives these banks the ability to do this for 50 million of your shares.

11) So let’s assume that Morgan Stanley and its other banking “friends” buy 50 million shares at $40 per share and then sell these shares at $50.  Morgan Stanley and its banking “friends” will make an additional $500 million- yes, $500 million- a HALF BILLION DOLLARS off your company.

So let’s now do a tally to see how much money all of your banking friends are going to make just for the privilege of doing your IPO.  Let’s also see where this money comes from.

“Discounted” fees/commission: $150 million

Greenshoe profits: about $500 million

Extra trading commissions from large fund managers: approximately $10 million

—————

Investment Bank Profits:   $660 million

As the lead bank on your deal, Morgan Stanley is likely to get 30% of the overall take. This means that your closest investment banking “friend” will make a bit more than $200 million from your IPO.

Morgan Stanley and the rest of the investment banks involved will also make sure that their favorite fund manager client “friends” are given lots of free money. Assuming that these “friends” are given 75% of the total number of IPO shares, or a total of 291 million shares, and assuming that the stock does rise from $40 to $50, then these fund managers will collectively, in one day, make $2.9 billion dollars in realized or unrealized profits.  That’s right, 2.9 BILLION DOLLARS.

Mark, by now you must be asking yourself the obvious question. “Where and out of whose pocket does this money come from?”

Well, just think of it this way… Let’s assume you own a very expensive piece of waterfront real estate, and you hire a broker to sell it for you. After exploring the market and after getting indications of interest, your broker advises you that $10 million would be a great price for your home.  You meet with the potential buyers and decide to sell it for $10 million.  After the $1 million commission you have to pay your broker, your net proceeds are $9 million. An hour later, you drive by the house and see your broker in the driveway shaking hands with some different people. You pull over to see what’s going on, and you find that the people you just sold the house to for $10 million are very close friends of your broker.  To your dismay, you also find out that those friends just sold your (former) house to somebody else for $15 million.

The same exact game is going on here, Mark. You’ll be selling 388 million shares of Facebook stock in your IPO. A likely scenario is that your broker “friends” are telling you to sell your shares at $40 per share. You’ll take their advice and sell at $40 per share, and the buyers will be Morgan Stanley’s biggest fund management clients. By the time you drive around the block, these folks will have sold their shares at $50 per share. In other words, using the same real estate scenario, you’ll have sold something of yours for $15 billion that is really worth $19 billion. And for that “unique” privilege, you’ll be paying your “friends” at the banks $150 million as a fee.

Makes you wonder who your real friends are…

————-

End of letter

————-

I find the points that my (real life) friend makes here highly disturbing, but I suspect that they also fit with what we now know about dishonesty.

First, although there are many ethically questionable practices occurring here, it’s not clear that anything illegal is going on.  Second, I think that while this banking industry’s IPO process is artfully designed in such a way that, although overall it’s good for the bankers and less so for the companies, no single individual believes he/she is doing anything wrong.  Third, I also suspect that since this is such a common practice, the bankers most likely truly believe that mechanisms such as getting a first-day IPO “pop” is great for Facebook and that the Greenshoe is fact put in place to stabilize the Facebook stock price, and not simply to generate more windfall profits for themselves.  Forth, they probably believe in their own definition of a “successful” IPO, which in their terms is one where the stock is priced at $40 and quickly trades up to $50. In the case of Facebook, this process simply redistributes $4 billion from Facebook to the banks and the large fund managers. For Zuckerberg and his team, I have to wonder whether the emotional value of a first day share price “pop” is worth $4 billion.

I am not sure about you, but I find all of this very depressing.

Irrationally yours,

Dan

Supply, Demand, and Valentine’s Day

Feb 14

Want to know how to ensure your wife or girlfriend’s satisfaction with her Valentine’s Day present? Over breakfast, casually mention that recent census data shows women outnumber men in your area, and that men are apparently a scarce commodity (or maybe just the first part).

Why would this matter? Well, according to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, perceived gender ratio affects economic behavior in both men and women. Regarding your sweetheart’s present, after female participants read an article describing a dearth of men in the local population, the amount of money they expected a man to spend on dinner, Valentine’s Day, and engagement rings decreased (and likewise, they expected men to woo them more lavishly when there were reportedly more men than women).

This sort of news had a complementary effect on men. When male participants read an article indicating an excess of men in the population and then answered questions about monthly spending habits, they reported they would borrow 84% money more and save 42% less. When the article reversed the ratio, men accordingly borrowed less and saved more. (Unlike men, women’s spending habits were not altered by the reported population inequality, only their expectations were.)

Moreover, an apparent discrepancy in gender was all it took to increase men’s willingness to make financially riskier decisions. In another experiment, participants were shown photos of groups of people: some where women outnumbered men, some where men outnumbered women, and some with an equal number of each. Afterwards, experimenters asked participants whether they would rather be paid the following day, or wait for a greater amount in a month. The result? After viewing photographs graced by fewer women, men were much more likely to choose $20 the next day over waiting a few weeks for $30.

As it turns out, researchers discovered that these results are born out in real populations too: In Columbus, Georgia, there are 1.18 single men for every single woman, and the average consumer debt is $3,479 higher than it is 100 miles away in Macon, where there are 0.78 single men for every woman.

So for those of you who are single and looking to find a match, here’s a little help from the US Census Bureau. Ladies, you’ll want to try your luck in the blue areas; guys, your best bet is in the red.

 

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Visual illusions and decision illusions

Dec 10

Consider some of illusion at the bottom of the demo page (click here to see it).

The two middle color patches look as if they are different, but in fact they are exactly the same. What is gong on here? How can it be that we see wrong? How can it be that eve after we are shown that these two patches are identical we still can’t see them accurately?

It is because our brain is wired in a particular ways and this wiring, while very good for some things, is not perfect — and it makes us susceptible to certain errors and mistakes. Moreover, because these mistakes are a part of us, we are fooled by them in predictable and consistent ways over and over.

Now, vision is our best system. We have lots of practice with it (we see many hours in the day and for many years) and more of our brain is dedicated to vision than to any other activities. So consider this — if we make mistakes in vision, what is the chance that we would not make mistakes in other domains? Particularly in domains which are more complex (dealing with insurance, money, etc.), and ones in which we have less practice? Domains such as decision making and economic reasoning?

Not very high I think — and this is why we have lots of decision illusions. The predictable, repeated mistakes we all make in our financial, medical, and other daily decisions.

Irrationally yours

Dan

The psychology of money and habits

Nov 01

Money is an integral part of modern life. We constantly make decisions about whether we’re willing to pay for different products and, if so, how much we are willing to pay. In fact, we make decisions about money so often that we consider money to be a natural part of our environment.

However, money is a relatively recent invention, and despite its incredible economic usefulness it does come with its own set of problems. In particular, it turns out that decisions about money are often non-intuitive and, in fact, quite difficult. Consider the following situation as an example: You are thirsty, tired, and annoyed and just want a cup of coffee. You see two coffee shops across the street from each another. One is a specialty coffee shop that sells handcrafted, designer coffee and the other is Dunkin’ Donuts which sells standard, decent coffee. The price difference between the two options is $1.75 for your cup-a-joe. Now, how do you decide if the benefit of the handcrafted coffee drink is worth the additional $1.75?

What you should do (if you wanted to be rational about it) is consider all of the things that you could buy with that $1.75, now as well as in the future, and decide to buy the expensive coffee only if the difference between the two coffees is more valuable than all of those other possibilities. But of course this computation would take hours, it is incredibly complex, and who even knows all the possible options to consider?

So what do we do when we need to make decisions but making them “correctly” is too time consuming and difficult? We adopt simplifying rules, which academics call heuristics, and these heuristics provide us with actionable outcomes that might not be ideal but they help us to reach a decision. In the case of coffee and other, similar decisions, one of the heuristics we often use is to look at our own past behaviors and if we find evidence of relevant past decisions, we simply repeat those. In the case of coffee, for example, you might search your memory for other instances in which you visited regular fancy coffee shops. Assess which one of those two behaviors is more frequent and then you tell yourself “If I’ve done Action X more than Action Y in the past, this must mean that I prefer Action X to action Y” and as a consequence, you make your decision.

The strategy of looking at our past behaviors and repeating them, might seem at first glance to be very reasonable. However, it also suffers from at least two potential problems. First, it can make a few mediocre decisions into a long-term habit. For example, after we have gone to a fancy coffee shop three times in a row, we might reason that this is a great decision for us and continue with the same strategy for a long time. The second downfall is that when the conditions in the market change, we are unlikely to revise our strategy. For example, if the price difference between the fancy & standard coffee shop used to be 25¢ and over the years has increased to $1.75, we might stay with our original decision even though the conditions that supported it are no longer applicable.

In light of our current financial situation, many people these days are looking for places to cut financial spending. Once we understand how we use habits as a way to simplify our financial decision-making, we can also look more effectively into ways to save money. If we assume that our past decisions have always been sensible and reasonable then we should not scrutinize our long-term habits. After all, if we’ve done something for five years, it must be a great decision. But if we understand that long-term, repeated behaviors might reflect our habitual decision-making in the face of complex financial decisions more than they reflect what is truly best for us, we might first examine our old habits and carefully consider whether they indeed make sense or not. We can examine our subscription to the ESPN Sports Package, our annual subscription to the opera, our yearly Disneyland vacation, or our monthly visit to the hairdresser. By examining these habits, and quitting them when it makes sense to do so, we might actually discover ways in which we could reduce our spending on a long-term basis.

Yes, money is complex, and it is incredibly difficult for us to carefully examine every purchasing decision we make. But the advantage of examining our habits is that it might lead us to create good ones that will benefit us for a long time.

surprises from our recent economic history

Sep 20

Reflecting back on our recent economic history bring to my mind a two sad surprises.

Even as a behavioral economist who generally believes in the prevalence of irrationality in our every day life, I place some stock in the main mechanism that should have maintained the efficiency of the financial markets: competition. In principle, the drive for competition among individuals, banks, and financial institutions should get the actors in the market to do the right thing for their clients as they fight to outdo their competition. After the Wall Street fiasco, I expected and hoped that in the spirit of competition some financial institutions would change their way given the new information about the risks they were talking and self-impose restrictions on themselves. I did not expect that they would do so because they were benevolent, but because they wanted to get the business of those who have lost trust in the financial institutions.

Surprise one: Sadly, the forces of competition do not seem to have any effect on the functioning of our financial institutions and Wall Street seems to be back to is pre-fiasco structure.

We are now discussing the possibility of health care reform, which arguably is even more messed up than our financial institutions (about 18 percent of GDP, bad incentives, bad intuitions, and the leading cause for bankruptcy before the current housing problem). When I look at the health care debate, it seems to be fueled by ideological beliefs about the importance of competition and freedom of choice on one hand, and the evilness of regulations and limits on the other. As someone who loves data beyond theories, it is surprising to me how little we know about the effectiveness of different versions of health care, and how sure people are in their own beliefs — which makes it an ideological and not a very useful debate (this is just a small surprise).

But what is the most surprising to me is that the tremendously expensive lessons we have experienced about the efficiency of markets and self interest do not seem to carry to the health care debate. As a society, we still seem to be enamored with the ideology of free markets, and have not seemed to update our beliefs in their efficiency despite the evidence. On the bright side, it looks like behavioral economists will have a lot of work for the foreseeable future.

THE CURIOUS PARADOX OF `OPTIMISM BIAS’

Sep 05

Ever since the financial meltdown, and throughout this recession, people keep asking me if I’m optimistic about our future. I think people are actually asking two questions: Where does one naturally fall on the optimism spectrum? And is there a place for optimism in our present circumstances?

One of the most basic findings in behavioral economics is what’s called the “optimism bias,” also known as the “positivity” illusion.

The basic idea is that when people judge their chances of experiencing a good outcome–getting a great job or having a successful marriage, healthy kids, or financial security–they estimate their odds to be higher than average. But when they contemplate the probability that something bad will befall them (a heart attack, a divorce, a parking ticket), they estimate their odds to be lower than those of other people.

This optimism bias transcends gender, age, education, and nationality–although it seems to be correlated with the absence of depression. Depressed people tend to show a smaller optimism bias. They also have a more accurate take on reality–perceptions more in line with what actuaries figure to be their real chances of divorcing, suffering a heart attack, and so on.

UNDERESTIMATING RISK

It is interesting to ponder the utility of over-optimism. It’s not a simple matter, because it can both hurt and help us. Individuals often suffer because of an overly bright outlook. They wind up dead, or poor, or bankrupt because they underestimated the downside of taking a certain path. But society as a whole often benefits from behavior spurred by upbeat outlooks.

It’s the inverse of “the paradox of thrift,” which holds that saving money (instead of consuming) may be good for an individual but is bad for an economy trying to grow.

Overoptimism works the other way. Imagine a society in which no one would take on the risk of creating startups, developing new medications, or opening new businesses. We know most new enterprises fail in the first few years. Yet they crop up all the time, sometimes jump-starting entirely new sectors. A society in which no one is overly optimistic and no one takes too much risk? Such a culture wouldn’t advance much.

So are there objective reasons for optimism in the current recession? There are. Amid the countless half-empty glasses strewn about at the moment, there are many that could be viewed as half-full. Most important, there are lessons we can absorb–insights that point to ways we can improve things. And what’s more optimistic than believing in the possibility of improvement?

This recession has delivered a huge lesson in how far human folly and irrationality can lead us astray–into conflicts of interest, extrapolating long-term projections from short-term trends, putting too much trust in economic advisers, and so on. I don’t anticipate that the downturn will change human nature. We aren’t better, more thoughtful people now. And we’re unlikely to become phoenixes rising from our fiscal ashes. But I am hopeful that if we take these painful lessons to heart (and mind), we might create lasting changes.

There are signs we are doing so, sometimes because there’s no other choice. From my perch as a professor, I see undergraduates turning to volunteering, startups, and the pursuit of all kinds of dreams. And for the first time in many years, Americans are starting to save money. (This might not quicken the recovery, but it’s good for the economy long term.) Manufacturers are building smaller, more sustainable homes and cars. And some banks (banks!) are thinking about how to help consumers become more financially responsible.

Finally, it looks as if there are advances in banking regulations that will endure–those mandating clearer disclosures of mortgage rules, for instance, and those making banks more accountable. Changes like these are unlikely to prevent all future financial shenanigans. But I’m optimistic about their ability to prevent some of them.

This reflection first appeared in Businessweek

Are We More Rational Than Our Fellow Animals?

Aug 20

We usually accept without argument the notion that man is at the top of the animal hierarchy. After all, only mammals have a neocortex – the most recently evolved part of the brain and the center of higher mental functions – and ours is the most advanced variation, so it makes sense that we’d be at a higher stage of development.

But is this true? Does the neocortex always make us more rational than other animals?

Most of the time, the answer is yes. For instance, it’s thanks to our neocortex that we are able to plan for the future, something that animals have a hard time doing. (They are even worse at saving than we are!)

Still, this isn’t always the case, as the following chimpanzee experiment suggests. In “Chimpanzees are rational maximizers in an ultimatum game,” researchers Keith Jensen, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello looked into how chimps fare at one of the classic tests of human rationality, the ultimatum game.

In the human version of this game, a “proposer” is handed some money, say $10, and must suggest a division of the sum for himself and another participant. This other person, the “responder,” can then either accept or reject the offer. If he chooses to accept the division, both participants receive their share; if he opts to reject it, neither gets compensated.

Now, if we were to go by the traditional economic model of man as a self-interested rational maximizer, we would suppose that the proposers would always suggest a division that maximized his self-interest (an $9/$1 division) and that the responders would always accept a nonzero offer ($1 may not be $9, but it’s still better than nothing).

Except, this is not what happens. Research has shown that we human beings not only consider how best to maximize our compensation, but we also factor in such notions as cooperation and fairness when we make our decisions. For example, responders in the ultimatum game will often reject a monetary division that is particularly unfair for them (such as a $8/$2 division) – even when this comes at their own cost (they lose the $2, after all). This behavior is of course wonderfully human — but it is not part of the standard rational model.

Chimpanzees, however, go about the ultimatum game (which involves divisions of raisins in their case) without giving fairness any thought. In this experiment, the researchers found that the chimp responders tended to accept any nonzero offer, however unfair. And conversely, the chimp proposers rarely suggested a fair division, choosing instead to maximize their own share.

In this case, then, animals are more rational than we are. Whereas we’re willing to lose a couple bucks so that the other guy gets punished for his inequitable offer, chimps only act according to what will guarantee them the most raisons.

This curious turning-of-tables suggests that we might want to think differently about the neocortex. Overall, we’re better off having it, as without our sense of right and wrong, we would lack empathy and the ability to reinforce societal rules. Yet, in certain contexts, the neocortex can cause us not to maximize our self-interest. Evolution, then, is a mixed blessing: it makes us better some things, and worse at others.

The Symbolic Power Of Money (by Alon Nir)

Jun 01

They say money can’t buy happiness. That might be true, but a new study suggests money holds more benefits in store than just the obvious ones. A clever set of experiments by Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister suggest that simply handling money can dull physical and emotional pain.

Previous research has shown that social exclusion and physical pain share common underlying mechanisms. This is due to the way we evolved as social animals. In fact, a 2003 study (Eisenberger et al.) showed that the brain produces similar responses to social rejection as to physical pain. Other work (Vohs et al., 2006) revealed that thoughts of money convey feelings of self-sufficiency, thus soothing the uneasiness of social exclusion. Putting these findings together, Zhou et al. propose that money and physical pain are linked to one another, and they set out to examine this connection as well as the connection money has to social distress.

Three pairs of experiments were carried out on university students, looking to see if:

a. social exclusion and physical pain increase the desire for money
b. money can appease this pain, both physical and emotional
c. losing money intensifies these sensations. As it turns out from the study, the answer to all of these hypotheses is yes.

Since I liked the design of the study I’ll describe it succinctly as I introduce the findings. The impatient reader can skip the part in blue.

The first pair of experiments explored if the desire for money increases with social rejection and physical pain. Researchers let groups of four get acquainted with each other, and then split them to individual rooms. The subjects were then told that they were not picked by any of the others as partners for a dyad task, to stem feelings of social rejection (subjects in the control group were told everyone chose them). After this semi-cruel manipulation, the subjects’ desire for money was measured in three different measures (e.g. the sum they were willing to donate to an orphanage) and in all three the participants in the rejected condition expressed higher desire for money, compared to their ‘popular’ counterparts.

In the second experiment, half the subjects were primed to the idea of physical pain with word-completion tasks, while the other half was exposed to neutral concepts. Simply priming the notion of pain also increased the desire for money.

The next pair of experiments investigated if money can sooth pain. Subjects in the one condition were asked to count eighty $100 bills, in order to invoke the feeling of obtaining money, while the other subjects counted 80 pieces of paper (all this under the pretence of a finger-dexterity task). Then, one experiment had subject play ‘Cyberball’ – a computerized ball-tossing game with other players. The participants were lead to believe the players were human but in fact were a simple computer program. Subjects in the exclusion condition weren’t passed the ball and were effectively left out of the game by the other ‘players’. How tragic it must have been for some of them – it’s the grade school playground all over again. After the game ended participants were questioned about their experience, and – as you might have guessed it – those who counted money beforehand felt less social distress over being left out of the game, and maintained higher self-esteem than those who counted paper.

The other experiment of the pair is possibly the most interesting in the bunch. After that same money/paper counting exercise, the poor participants had to undergo a pain-sensitivity task (and all they got in return was partial course credit!). Zhou et al. used another approach – they put subjects’ hands in an immobilizing contraption and then poured hot water on their fingers. After this ‘pleasantness’, subjects rated how painful was this experience. The results indicate that simply counting money significantly reduced feelings of pain in the high-pain condition, and that it made participants feel stronger than those who counted paper.

The last pair of experiments used similar measures to show that thinking about losing money actually intensifies the sting of social rejection (Cyberball) and exacerbate physical pain (hot water again). Subjects in the money-losing condition indeed reported higher vulnerability in both cases.

To sum up, these experiments suggest that having financial resources diminishes pain, both physical pain and emotional pain caused by social rejection. Possibly the most interesting thing to pinpoint is that the method these findings were obtained indicates a general perception of money as a mean to alleviate pain and suffering. This is because money by itself had no value in the experiments as it could not “buy” any passes of the ball nor a release out of the hand constraints. It is also interesting to notice that merely thinking about having or losing money, without any actual change in resources, had the described effects since the experimenters didn’t award (or take) the subjects any money (neither as a part of the experiments nor for their participation).

This study springs several implications to mind. As for me, I wonder if there will ever come a day that a dentist appointment will kick off with a brief game of monopoly (one where the patient always accumulates great wealth) prior to the actual treatment. It just might alleviate the pain.

Reference: Zhou, X., Vohs, K., & Baumeister, R. (2009). The Symbolic Power of Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain Psychological Science.

2008 was a good year for behavioral economics

May 20

Before the financial crisis of 2008, it was rather difficult to convince people that we all might have irrational tendencies.

For example, after I gave a presentation at a conference, a fellow I’ll call Mr. Logic (a composite of many people I have debated with over the years) buttonholed me. “I enjoy hearing about all the different kinds of small-scale irrationalities that you demonstrate in your experiments,” he told me, handing me his card. “They’re quite interesting-great stories for cocktail parties.” He paused. “But you don’t understand how things work in the real world. Clearly, when it comes to making important decisions, all of these irrationalities disappear, because when it truly matters, people think carefully about their options before they act. And certainly when it comes to the stock market, where the decisions are critically important, all these irrationalities go away and rationality prevails.”

Given these kinds of responses, I was often left scratching my head, wondering why so many smart people are convinced that irrationality disappears when it comes to important decisions about money. Why do they assume that institutions, competition, and market mechanisms can inoculate us against mistakes? If competition was sufficient to overcome irrationality, wouldn’t that eliminate brawls in sporting competitions, or the irrational self-destructive behaviors of professional athletes? What is it about circumstances involving money and competition that might make people more rational? Do the defenders of rationality believe that we have different brain mechanisms for making small versus large decisions and yet another yet another for dealing with the stock market? Or do they simply have a bone-deep belief that the invisible hand and the wisdom of the markets guarantee optimal behavior under all conditions?

As a social scientist, I’m not sure which model describing human behavior in markets-rational economics, behavioral economics, or something else-is best, and I wish we could set up a series of experiments to figure this out. Unfortunately, since it is basically impossible to do any real experiments with the stock market, I’ve been left befuddled by the deep conviction in the rationality of the market. And I’ve wondered if we really want to build our financial institutions, our legal system, and our policies on such a foundation.

As I was asking myself these questions, something very big happened. Soon after Predictably Irrational was published, in early 2008, the financial world blew to smithereens, like something in a science fiction movie. Alan Greenspan, the formerly much-worshipped chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress in October 2008 that he was “shocked” (shocked!) that the markets did not work as anticipated, or automatically self-correct as they were supposed to. He said he made a mistake in assuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders. For my part, I was shocked that Greenspan, one of the tireless advocates of deregulation and a true believer in letting market forces have their way, would publicly admit that his assumptions about the rationality of markets were wrong. A few months before this confession, I could never have imagined that Greenspan would utter such a statement. Aside from feeling vindicated, I also felt that Greenspan’s confession was an important step forward. After all, they say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Still, the terrible loss of homes and jobs has been a very high price to pay for learning that we might not be as rational as Greenspan and other traditional economists had thought. What we’ve learned is that relying on standard economic theory alone as a guiding principle for building markets and institutions might, in fact, be dangerous. It has become tragically clear that the mistakes we all make are not at all random, but part and parcel of the human condition. Worse, our mistakes of judgment can aggregate in the market, sparking a scenario in which, much like an earthquake, no one has any idea what is happening. All of a sudden, it looked as if some people were beginning to understand that the study of small-scale mistakes was not just a source for amusing dinner-table anecdotes. I felt both exonerated and relieved.

While this is a very depressing time for the economy as a whole, and for all of us individually, the turnabout on Greenspan’s part has created new opportunities for behavioral economics, and for those willing to learn and alter the way they think and behave. From crisis comes opportunity, and perhaps this tragedy will cause us to finally accommodate new ideas, and-I hope-begin to rebuild.

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