The final programme in the documentary series The Love of Money finishes by ascribing the causes of many financial crises, including the most recent, to a "reckless love of money". Over the series, we have seen how reliance by banks on imprudent investments in property loans with high default risk led to the near total collapse of the world's financial systems.
Was this the consequence of the actions of a powerful few, driven by extraordinary levels of greed and recklessness, or can the roots of the crisis be found in much more commonplace aspects of human psychology? I am going to argue that there is a great deal in common between the psychology of every day decisions about money and the psychological processes involved in the creation of this global financial crisis.
Consider two examples:
Jenny has recently lost her job, she knows that money is tight and she needs to reduce her costs dramatically, but every time she tries to think about sorting things out she feels bad and ends up by going shopping to cheer herself up.
Jared took on a 100% loan to buy a house with repayment levels he could only just afford. As he thought about this decision from time to time, he felt anxious about the possibility that he would not be able to meet the payments. He was able to avoid this anxiety by focusing on the way in which house prices seemed to keep on rising and by telling himself it was really a 'one way bet'.
In each case there is a common factor: employing a strategy to avoid bad feelings and maintain good feelings, rather than facing the real problem or risk. We all behave like this from time to time. We all have strategies to regulate our emotions and often do so with the goal of avoiding bad feelings. However, when we feel particularly anxious or are powerfully motivated by an important goal, this tendency can cause us to ignore the important information that negative feelings can carry. Often this can involve fostering illusions about ourselves and the world around us which help us feel better.
We might imagine that professional financial decision-makers would be better at avoiding such traps. After all they work in a climate which places a great premium on rational decisions. However, in a large-scale study of 118 traders in four City of London investment banks, myself and colleagues found traders to be just as prone to these kinds of illusions as the rest of us. In particular we studied traders' propensity to suffer from the illusion of control: the tendency to believe we are more in control of events than we really are (especially under stress). We found a significant relationship between a tendency to suffer from illusions of control and poor trader performance (including poor management of risk).
How might this relate to the causes of financial crises? One example back in the early 1990s is worth recalling. Peter Baring has been reported as telling shareholders at an AGM one year before the collapse of Barings' Bank that, on the basis of the previous year's performance, he had concluded it is easy to make money in the derivatives market. A year later the bank was valued at £1.
Any banker understands that there is a strong relationship between risk and return. Faced with unusually good financial performance in part of a bank's operations, an important question to ask is "What hidden risks are we carrying that account for this high return?" However, faced with good returns, it is tempting to foster the illusion that good performance is a result of our unique skills and capabilities, while failures are due to events beyond our control. This tendency is known by psychologists as the self-serving bias.
This unwillingness to seriously question what hidden risks lay behind unusually high returns seems to have been an important factor in the recent demise of Lehman brothers and other major banks. A reckless love of money seems to have fuelled collective illusions about the risks being faced.
We need to understand more about how these kinds of emotion regulation processes work in financial decision-making. Current research is helping us understand these processes and how such blindness to risk can be reduced. The European Commission has funded me and an international group of researchers to conduct a major study looking at ways of improving financial decision-making. This study is looking at traders, investors and private citizens, and is paying close attention to the role played by emotions in their decision making.
Take it further
Traders: risks, decisions, and management in financial markets
by Mark Fenton-O'Creevy, Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane and Paul Willman, published by Oxford University Press