What the heck is fictive learning? Well, I’m glad you asked. Fictive learning refers to our ability to imagine “what if” situations. We learn not only from our actual actions, but from our perceptions of what would have happened if we had done something differently. It turns out that fictive learning has a lot to do with investor behavior too. Here are a few excerpts about relevant experiments discussed in an article in Wired magazine.
To better understand the source of our compulsive speculation, Read Montague, a neuroscientist now at Virginia Tech, has begun investigating the formation of bubbles from the perspective of the brain. He argues that the urge to speculate is rooted in our mental software. In particular, bubbles seem to depend on a unique human talent called “fictive learning,” which is the ability to learn from hypothetical scenarios and counterfactual questions. In other words, people don’t just learn from mistakes they’ve actually made, they’re able to learn from mistakes they might have made, if only they’d done something different.
Investors, after all, are constantly engaging in fictive learning, as they compare their actual returns against the returns that might have been, if only they’d sold their shares before the crash or bought Google stock when the company first went public. And so, in 2007, Montague began simulating stock bubbles in a brain scanner, as he attempted to decipher the neuroscience of irrational speculation. His experiment went like this: Each subject was given $100 and some basic information about the “current” state of the stock market. After choosing how much money to invest, the players watched nervously as their investments either rose or fell in value. The game continued for 20 rounds, and the subjects got to keep their earnings. One interesting twist was that instead of using random simulations of the stock market, Montague relied on distillations of data from famous historical markets. Montague had people “play” the Dow of 1929, the Nasdaq of 1998 and the S&P 500 of 1987, so the neural responses of investors reflected real-life bubbles and crashes.
Montague, et. al. immediately discovered a strong neural signal that drove many of the investment decisions. The signal was fictive learning. Take, for example, this situation. A player has decided to wager 10 percent of her total portfolio in the market, which is a rather small bet. Then, she watches as the market rises dramatically in value. At this point, the investor experiences a surge of regret, which is a side-effect of fictive learning. (We are thinking about how much richer we would be if only we’d invested more in the market.) This negative feeling is preceded by a swell of activity in the ventral caudate, a small area in the center of the cortex. Instead of enjoying our earnings, we are fixated on the profits we missed, which leads us to do something different the next time around.
When markets were booming, as in the Nasdaq bubble of the late 1990s, people perpetually increased their investments. In fact, many of Montague’s subjects eventually put all of their money into the rising market. They had become convinced that the bubble wasn’t a bubble. This boom would be different.
And then, just like that, the bubble burst. The Dow sinks, the Nasdaq collapses, the Nikkei implodes. At this point investors race to dump any assets that are declining in value, as their brain realizes that it made some very expensive mistakes. Our investing decisions are still being driven by regret, but now that feeling is telling us to sell. That’s when we get a financial panic.
Montague has also begun exploring the power of social comparison, or what he calls the “country club effect,” on the formation of financial bubbles. “This is what happens when you’re sitting around with your friends at the country club, and they’re all talking about how much money they’re making in the market,” Montague told me. “That casual conversation is going to change the way you think about investing.” In a series of ongoing experiments, Montague has studied what happens when people compete against each other in an investment game. While the subjects are making decisions about the stock market, Montague monitors their brain activity in two different fMRI machines. The first thing Montague discovered is that making more money than someone else is extremely pleasurable. When subjects “win” the investment game, Montague observes a large increase in activity in the striatum, a brain area typically associated with the processing of pleasurable rewards. (Montague refers to this as “cocaine brain,” as the striatum is also associated with the euphoric high of illicit drugs.) Unfortunately, this same urge to outperform others can also lead people to take reckless risks.
More recently, a team of Italian neuroscientists led by Nicola Canessa and Matteo Motterlini have shown that regret is also contagious, so that “observing the regretful outcomes of another’s choices reactivates the regret network.” (In other words, we internalize the errors of others. Or, as Motterlini wrote in an e-mail, “We simply live their emotions like these were our own.”) Furthermore, this empathy impacts our own decisions: The “risk-aptitude” of investors is significantly shaped by how well the risky decisions of a stranger turned out. If you bet the farm on some tech IPO and did well, then I might, too.
If you are an investment advisor, all of this is sounding pretty familiar. We’ve all seen clients make decisions based on social comparison, regret, or trying to avoid regret. Sometimes they are simply paralyzed, trapped between wanting to do as well as their brother-in-law and wanting to avoid the regret of losing money if their investment doesn’t work out.
The broader point is that a lot of what drives trends in the market is rooted in human behavior, not valuations and fundamentals. Human nature is unlikely to change, especially a feature like fictive learning which is actually incredibly helpful in many other contexts. As a result, markets will continue to trend and reverse, to form bubbles and to have those bubbles implode periodically.
While social science may be helpful in understanding why the market behaves as it does, we still have to figure out a way to navigate it. As long as markets trend, relative strength trend following should work. (That’s the method we follow.) As long as bubbles form and implode, other methods like buying deep value should help mitigate the risk of permanent loss. Most important, the discipline to execute a systematic investment plan and not get sucked into all of the cognitive biases will be necessary to prosper with whatever investment method you choose.