Old dogs can learn new tricks -- my wife and I discovered this when we decided to take scuba diving lessons here in Concord.
Instead of Monterey Bay, however, we opted to do our open water dive requirement last week in 82-degree water on Grand Cayman Island at our son's vet school graduation. Floating in a weightless environment totally at the mercy of the water and an artificial air supply somehow reminded me of investing in the stock market.
I found a lot to worry about at a depth of 60 feet, where there's that much distance to get to the air supply I take for granted. But diving is intoxicating. It's a strange new world with a landscape and animal life (well, fish) that you never see under any other circumstances.
You float effortlessly in this three-dimensional space while being careful to keep track of your "buddy" -- this is in case something happens to your air supply or theirs. For inexperienced divers like me, there is always the specter of Murphy's Law, so the concern about losing air or getting caught in some kelp never quite goes away.
The struggle to control the environment established, for me, the link between scuba diving and investing. I spent the week carefully reading Jason Zweig's new soon-to-be-a-classic book called "Your Money and Your Brain -- How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich."
This book offers a follow-up to an earlier favorite of mine, "Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes."
In simple terms, our brains mess with our heads. Thanks to medical imaging and scanning, we can determine what parts of our brains are gearing up to struggle with different types of investment decisions and risk.
Zweig's book actually has photographs of the parts of the brain that literally light up when struggling with different financial challenges. In far too many cases, our brains get it wrong. In even more cases, the brains we think we're hiring (and to which we may be paying a lot of money) also are getting it wrong.
The book is chock full of examples, but to explore a few of the better ones, we can start with the "prediction addiction."
This is the struggle for the brain to create some order out of random events. Once we have stumbled into a collection of events that actually lead to making some money for us, it is like a needle in the arm. In fact, the expectation that we will make money again gives us more of a "kick" than actually making the money itself, if we happen to be so lucky.
Dopamine is one of the key engines of brain chemistry, and the excitement of discovering a pattern that has made money for us in the past gives our brains the same level of dopamine that a hit of cocaine would produce. Harvard Medical School has done studies showing that the brain scan of a cocaine addict generates exactly the same neuron-firing pattern as the one exhibited by someone who thinks they are about to make money.
The prediction addiction swings into gear even on an unconscious level when we are struggling to make a totally-informed decision. It only takes about three factors from some previous profitable experience to reassert themselves before we throw all caution (and further reflection) out the window.
"Controlling the controllable" is one of the basic lessons of the book. All too often, we waste our time trying to read investment tea leaves instead of just focusing on what we control and making sure we aren't making mistakes in areas that are guaranteed to improve our results.
One example of a "controllable" is our expectation of what the market will earn. If we think we will consistently beat a market that has averaged 10 percent, we are setting ourselves up for a big disappointment.
Another controllable is cost. Paying too much for investment advice and letting someone else's misguided brain mess with our head (and our money) is obviously a controllable that can be set straight. Costs also include taxes triggered by investment decisions. "Will the expected additional gain of this investment change more than compensate for the taxes that will, with 100 percent certainty, eat into my nest egg?"
Then there's risk. When markets are going up, all those tests we can take online indicate that we can all handle plenty of risk. In down markets, the same tests applied to the same groups of people indicate that a far lower level of risk is acceptable.
I must say, if I were limited to a single investment book to recommend for someone reasonably sophisticated who wanted to get to the next plateau, Zweig's book would be it.
It covers all the basic fundamentals while illustrating how powerfully the mind conspires to make us ignore the fundamentals. As Zweig points out: "They don't call it 'dopamine' for nothing."