MC Stories – What Brain Behavior Teaches us About Investing

What brain behavior teaches us about investing

In the early 2000s, I was walking into a Wells Fargo Bank on San Vicente in Brentwood, CA, when 2 young men briskly walked past us with heavy sweatshirts, dark sunglasses and hats on – it was the middle of summer. I immediately remember thinking that’s odd and got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I entered the branch. I didn’t see anyone until my eyes looked down at the floor and everyone was face down. The bank had just been robbed! I had missed it by only 30 seconds. Thoughts circled my mind and I began to wonder how each person reacted; did they panic? Or play it cool, assuming it would all be over in a matter of minutes? What would I have done in that situation?

I believe the biology of our brain can help explain how we react when we are shocked, worried, scared or panicking. Our brain has three separate parts: the Brain Stem, the Limbic Brain and the Neo-Cortex. The Brain Stem is largely responsible for automatic functions like body temperature, breathing, heartrate, etc. We will call this the lizard brain. The Limbic brain (animal brain) is the seat of our emotions and contains the Amygdala which is responsible for our Fight or Flight response. The Neo-cortex is our “logical” brain and allows us to solve complicated math problems, put a man on the moon and use language.

Over the course of thousands of years, our brain biology has not changed much. In times of heightened emotional angst (i.e. during the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s easy for our fight or flight survival mechanisms to kick in. Our brains are not able to distinguish between a perceived social threat and a physical threat. When the animal and lizard brain are activated, they literally hi-jack the logical brain (neo-cortex) of its ability to think by robbing or redirecting blood flow away from the neo-cortex so that the body can leverage its survival mechanisms.
This can also explain why some intelligent people make emotional mistakes with their money. Of course, no one does this intentionally. I would contend that they get robbed or hijacked. Not by a stranger but by their own brain. The idea of lack of resources (i.e. less money) strikes at the notion of survival on some primitive level and can easily trigger a strong emotional response – almost involuntarily. Would you trust your neighbor’s pet dog or lizard to make financial decisions for you? Probably not. But, invariably that is what we do when we making financial decisions in a heightened emotional state.

What is the prescription to avoid making this critical error:
1. Awareness – recognize your animal/retile brain has taken control (internal dialogue you are having is 1 clue).
2. Acceptance – its ok to feel strong emotions. Don’t try to control them immediately, just accept that you are irritated about the current set of circumstances.
3. Find a Release Valve for the emotion. Remember that Emotion is Energy in Motion. Don’t trap it. Release it by practicing deep breathing, exercise, or take a walk.
4. Talk about what you are feeling and see if you can put words to it – you are moving back into the higher brain by articulating what you feel by engaging the Neo-cortex. Talk to your spouse, friends or your Morton Capital Advisor.
5. Time – Give yourself the gift of time (a minimum of 24 hours or perhaps several days) before making a decision.

So, the next time your amygdala shows up to rob you, you’ll know just how to handle the situation.

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