Behavioral Finance

The Myth of One

The human brain likes to simplify problems and make clear distinctions. That's a problem for investors in a world where many factors matter.

Right now, you're reading this column and your mind is focused on each sentence. That's a marvelous and miraculous thing your brain is doing! The ability to focus on one thing is an incredible feat of focus allowing us to accomplish much in life. But there's a big drawback: While you're focusing on this column, there's a whole world of activity your brain is ignoring!

That pain in your back, the chatty co-worker across the room, the phone that won't stop ringing, the fly buzzing around your head…where did all those pesky thoughts go? None of them ceased to exist, you just stopped paying attention for a few seconds.

Blocking extraneous issues from our minds and directing our focus towards what's most relevant is a nifty feature of the human brain: We're actually designed to ignore most of what's going on around us. Human brains—and those of many animals—are made to focus and reduce situations to actionable, understandable steps. We can't keep a whole lot of information at the forefront of our consciousness for very long. At best, we can hold on to a few items at a time, but mostly we just focus on one thing or we'll forget it.

That's because evolution designed the brain as a hierarchical thing—receiving stimulus from the outside world and running the data through various neural unconscious systems (which account for the vast majority of brain activity) and deciding what, if any, information is worth bringing to your actual frontal lobes (where most of your consciousness is believed to reside). You'll never even know about most of what your brain does or perceives!

That's a great thing because nobody wants to be thinking about regulating their heartbeat, digesting this morning's cinnamon raisin bagel, or focusing the lenses in their eyeballs to read the newspaper every second of the day. Our unconscious brains do all that heavy lifting so we can put our attention on other issues.

Only problem is, the brain's tendency to block out extraneous information can be a very hazardous thing for investors.

I like to call most of today's financial media pundits disciples of the "Myth of One." That is, most stories we read today tend to focus on one issue alone as if that was the only thing moving stocks. "Oh, stocks were down today because housing starts fell last month!" or "Stocks went up because mortgage loan demand was higher than expected in August!" (Really? Since when are we suddenly all so focused on mortgage demand as the seminal market moving issue?)

The reality is millions upon millions of factors are acting on the market at any given time. But our brains can't live with that idea so we write and read stories about single factors as if they were the only relevant thing. How absurd! But that's how our brains work—we're just not made to see the big picture. (In fact, our brains are so blind no one seems to notice corporate earnings are easily surpassing expectations this year!) Today the singular mythic issue is credit and housing, yesterday it was energy prices and carry trades, and tomorrow it will be something else. That's your brain tricking you into the Myth of One.

It seems impossible to truly understand what's going on in markets if we can only focus on a few measly issues at a time. What can we do?

One useful strategy is to put things into perspective. Often when investors get too focused on a single issue it gets blown far out of proportion. A great example is last week's US employment report. Investors headed for the hills as the S&P 500 relinquished more than 1.5%–supposedly all for a job contraction of 4,000. When we consider a workforce of over 153 million, 4,000 jobs account for less than one thousandth of a percent of the employee base. How silly! There's virtually no way such a small thing could account for such a big move. That tells you investors irrationally fell prey to the Myth of One. If you can see that, you've put the issue into perspective and gotten ahead of the game. Read more about the employment issue here:

Belaboring Labor, 9/7/07

Ultimately, you're just going to have to live with the brain you've got. But that doesn't mean you have to buy in to the myth that just one story alone moves global markets at any given time.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.