Psychologists study psychological capacities – what we the call “the mind.” One of the distinctive psychological capacities of human beings is the ability to explain and predict the behaviour and mental states of other humans. Psychologists call this ability “Theory of Mind”. We all have “Theory of Mind” – but how does it work? That is, by what method or mechanism do we explain and predict other people’s behaviour?
People are very good at predicting and explaining each other’s behaviour. We are so good at it, that often we do not realise we are doing it. And it is very unclear how we do it. In this post, I will briefly introduce some ideas in psychology about how we do it.
“Theory of Mind” is the label for how we predict and explain the behaviour of others. It was originally called that because the first idea was that we have a theory of other people. On this account, we learn this theory as children, or it is innate — meaning we are born with it. It ought to be something like a theory in that it has some kind of rules in a system. They would say things like “everyone who wants some ice cream will go where they think the ice cream is.”
Subsequently, there was a debate as to whether this was really the right explanation for our Theory of Mind. Alternative accounts emerged. This means that some new terminology was required. The account I have already outlined above, where people use a theory to predict and explain others, became known as Theory Theory. It was, if you like, the theory that using a theory is how we do Theory of Mind! We use rules to predict and explain the actions of others.
The challenger account was called Simulation Theory. This says that people predict and explain others by simulating them. In other words, I predict what you will do in a situation by imagining that I am in that situation and then deciding what I would do. I might think (implicitly probably) “I want some ice cream, where would I go?”
We can see that both methods produce results that look plausible, to begin with. Both of them would account for the way that if I say to you “why did Jimmy go to the ice cream van?,” you don’t have any difficulty coming up with what looks like a good answer. What we don’t know is whether you came up with that answer by using a rule (Theory Theory) or put yourself in Jimmy’s place (Simulation Theory).
The debate continues as to whether Theory Theory or Simulation Theory is correct. The major objection to Simulation Theory was that it could not explain cases of systematic Theory of Mind error. In the Stanford Prison experiment, for example, the participants acted much more harshly than anyone outside the situation predicted. Those objecting to Simulation Theory said that if it was the correct account of Theory of Mind, then we would be able to get the right answer. We would be able to correctly predict the harshness of the participants by imagining that we were there.
I have provided what I think is the only response to this objection. I call it the bias mismatch defence. In it, suggest that if there is a systematic error in Theory of Mind, like the one in the prison experiment, it is because the people in the experiment are acting under a common cognitive bias, and the people outside it are not. They do not simulate the bias, in other words. There could be several reasons why they do not simulate it. They might, for example, have no particular emotional involvement in the situation. After all, being outside prison is much less intense than being in prison!
In this particular case of the prison experiment, I think the bias in question is Conformity Bias. This is the way we all tend to do what we are told, to some extent. But I could use this bias mismatch approach much more widely. It could be used to explain any cases where people systematically fail to predict how experimental participants will react, if those participants can be seen to be exhibiting any cognitive bias. We know about more than 150 of those so far, so there is plenty of opportunity for bias mismatch to arise. This bias mismatch happens a lot I think, and it is why so many results in social psychology are interesting and surprising — and also why so often, we fail to understand others.
I will argue that Proust has an interesting and modern perspective on the role and function of memory, based on an early perspective — by which I mean just the first two books.
Midway in book two, the “narrator” is surprised and delighted to receive a letter from Gilberte. (I place the word “narrator” in scare quotes because it is already clear to the reader that the person writing is doing so with a much more sophisticated perspective than would be available to a child or adolescent.) This occurs just before the introduction of the name Albertine; a name one is already certain will be of the highest significance.
One immediate observation is that both the names Gilberte and Albertine appear to an English speaker to be feminised versions of male names (but this may just be an artefact of time in that those were common at the time). More importantly, the name of Albertine is suggested in the way that Gilberte’s signature apparently begins with a G which looks like an A and the l is undotted; together with the way the final e is obscured in a “flourish” such that we could imagine it to be “–ine.”
This cannot be understood by the reader on first pass at least since the name Albertine has not yet at that stage been introduced — though it is about to be — which makes it seem to be something like a “shadow of the future…”
This all seems to tie in with the way “narrator” writes in an impossibly sophisticated way for a child and how all of the relations towards women seem to be similarly obsessive — it looks now as though either Swann relates to Odette in the same way as “narrator” does to Gilberte (and one awaits the arrival of Albertine with interest). Or, more plausibly, as though “narrator” is mapping his later more subtle appreciations on to others or finally — and we are presumably supposed to be talking about memory in In Remembrance of Times Past — to the idea that memory does not record events but is a later fabrication of them with heavy embeddings of later intellect/desire/perceptions which would be a very modern approach.
It is still common to see memory on a photography model: a more-or-less faithful record of actual events. Modern psychology sees it much more along the lines of a later heavily-biased reconstruction. Philosophers have taken varied views; Nietzsche has a particularly modern approach. I discuss this and outline some of the contrasting philosophical views in my thesis: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1421265/
Returning to my “shadow of the future” remark above, we could say — if Albertine turns out to be yet another obsessive love, and perhaps the paradigm case — that “narrator” has painted aspects of that episode on to all previous memories of love affairs including the initial one he apparently had with Gilberte, and even his perceptions/recollections of the one that Swann “must have had” with Odette. That would explain Swann’s readiness to destroy his own social position and consort with the most mediocre people in order to be with her.
Naturally, all of this remains subject to revision depending on subsequent developments, but I think it is already clear that Proust is working with extremely subtle and sophisticated conceptions of memory and identity.
I will argue that Proust’s picture of how we get into the minds of other’s is simulationist, thus following the account that I favour rather than the mainstream one.
The term in psychology for the way in which we predict and explain the behaviour of others is “Theory of Mind.” This is, I suggest, something of a placeholder, because it is in fact deeply unclear how we do this. Or even if we get it right. It certainly looks like we do, but that’s just because we confirm our results using the same method. (This is sometimes known as the “dipstick problem” in philosophy. I can’t tell whether my fuel gauge is accurate if I only look at the fuel gauge.)
There are two accounts of Theory of Mind in academic psychology. One is called Theory Theory. This is the claim that we have a theory of other people that we learn when young. This is the mainstream account. The other account, which I support, is called Simulation Theory:
Simulation Theory suggests that instead of using a theory of others, what we do when we predict and explain their behaviour is to simulate them. Metaphorically, we place ourselves in what we think is their position with the information and desires we thing they have, and then work out what we would do.
Anyone who has read Proust knows that he has an exceptionally deep and unusual set of insights into our psychology. His insights are not paralleled elsewhere in my view, with the possible exception of Henry James. For this reason, it is unsurprising to me that he also favours Simulation Theory. Moreover, Proust even seems to suggest the defence of Simulation Theory using cognitive biases which I have proposed.*
There are two key quotations I will use to back up this claim.** The character Swann is discussing “fellow-feeling,” and remarks to himself as below:
“he could not, in the last resort, answer for any but men whose natures were analogous to his own, as was, so far as the heart went, that of M. de Charlus. The mere thought of causing Swann so much distress would have been revolting to him. But with a man who was insensible, of another order of humanity, as was the Prince des Laumes, how was one to foresee the actions to which he might be led by the promptings of a different nature?”
This tells us that Swann has observed that it is easier for him to predict or explain the behaviour of others when those others are similar to him. In this particular case, Swann is wondering which of his friends might have sent him a distressing anonymous letter. Swann believes that Charlus is similar to Swann himself, that Swann himself would not have sent such a letter, and therefore Swann concludes that Charlus did not send the letter.
On the other hand, Swann believes that des Laumes is a very different individual, who is “insensible.” (I suspect that a more modern translation would use “insensitive” here.). Note that Swann, in a very simulationist vein, does not say “des Laumes is insensitive, so he might have sent the letter.” Instead, he says “des Laumes is insensitive, so I cannot tell what he would do.”
This is a very simulationist line. It says, in effect, that Swann is unable, he believes, to simulate des Laumes, because des Laumes is very different to Swann. Note this is not consistent with the mainstream Theory Theory view. There is no reason why Swann, an intelligent and perceptive man, could not have a good theory of insensitive behaviour. There is by contrast every reason why Swann could struggle to simulate insensitive behaviour, lacking as he does the experience “from the inside” of such behaviour.
A further simulationist view is suggested later; someone might be a genius:
“or, although a brilliant psychologist, [not believe] in the infidelity of a mistress or of a friend whose treachery persons far less gifted would have foreseen.”
This is a claim that people may be extremely intelligent and even special gifted in academic psychology but still make Theory of Mind errors in relation to other people not so gifted. Note how uncongenial this is to Theory Theory. Intelligent people who are brilliant psychologists should have an excellent theory of others and so be able to make very good predictions of their behaviour. Simulation Theory, by contrast, will predict exactly what Proust is describing here: brilliant, intelligent (highly moral?) individuals will fail to predict the behaviour of others who do not possess those characteristics. And similarly, more ordinary mortals will be able to simulate much better and thus predict much better when the person to be predicted is more like the person doing the predicting.
The major objection to Simulation Theory is that it does not account for surprising results in social psychology, such as the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Here, people behave amazingly harshly, for no apparent reason. This behaviour is not predicted by anyone. Theory Theorists claim that Simulation Theory cannot explain this, because we should just be able to simulate being a guard in a fake prison and then predict the harsh behaviour.
I provide a response to this objection on behalf of Simulation Theory. I suggest that what is missing from the simulation is a cognitive bias. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the bias in question I propose is Conformity Bias. Simply put, this is just our tendency to do what we are told. This bias is a lot stronger than we suppose, in comfortable repose.
It is gratifying to find Swann also gesturing in the direction of this Bias Mismatch Defence, as I call it. Swann further observes that he:
“knew quite well as a general truth, that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of any one human being he imagined all that part of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part with which he was.”
This, if Swann is accurate in his self-perception here, is a description of a systematic Theory of Mind error. It is a form of synecdoche, if you like. Swann takes the part of the person he knows and assumes that all of the rest of that person is the same.
I have suggested that one of the biases which can throw off our simulations is the Halo Effect. This means we know one thing about a person or item which has a certain positive or negative perceived value, and we then assume that all of the attributes of the person or item have the same value. For instance, someone who is a good speaker is probably also honest etc. There is of course no strong reason to think this, rationally speaking.
I have discussed the implications of the Halo Effect on predicting behaviour in financial markets previously:
In that case, I called the Bitcoin bubble just before it burst by employing the Halo Effect and positing that it was affecting the judgement of buyers. It is encouraging to see that Swann is also on the same page as me here!
Note that I do not claim to be a Proust expert or even have completed my reading yet! I do not therefore suggest that the above represents a radical new reading of the whole of Proust. I make only the modest claim that in this one paragraph, Proust describes a version of Theory of Mind which is more congenial to simulation than to theory. Since there are only these two developed candidate explanations of Theory of Mind, then that is already interesting. (There is also a hybrid account which employs both simulation and theory, but that is a mess in my view and there is no evidence of for any theory in the above quotation and therefore no evidence for a hybrid account.)
*”IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME – Complete 7 Book Collection (Modern Classics Series): The Masterpiece of 20th Century Literature (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding … The Sweet Cheat Gone & Time Regained)” by Marcel Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Stephen Hudson).
**It might be argued that this view is not that favoured by Proust himself but by Swann, who is a character created by Swann. I will not pursue this sort of Plato/Socrates point, but merely observe that it is at the very least true that Proust considers the position worth discussing. Moreover, I think it is very clear that Swann is rather to be considered an intelligent, discerning individual, if perhaps somewhat afflicted by propensities for self-deception, and so the fact that this view is at least that of Swann is sufficient to make it interesting. (I am informed by someone who knows Proust better than me that I am likely to revise my view of Swann in a negative direction as my reading progresses.)
When we have seen something often, we are more likely to believe it is true. This will weaken the accuracy of decision-making in financial markets and elsewhere
The Illusory Truth Effect is a variant of how we inaccurately use our feelings to make decisions. We use at least two methods to decide on the truth of a claim or the correctness of new information. The first method is somewhat allied to one of the philosophical account of knowledge: coherentism. We assess the claim based on whether it is consistent with what we think we already know. The second method is to consider how we feel about the claim or purported new information.
Both approaches have drawbacks. The first method, while probably the best available, can lead people into multiple errors. If you already believe something false, you are more likely to believe further false claims which are allied to the first false claim. We see many pernicious illustrations of this; for example, in political polarisation and various forms of prejudice.
The second approach is more damaging. In fact, deciding whether something is true or not based on how we feel about it looks so odd that you might wonder whether it can possibly be the case that this happens. This is another example of a puzzling psychological bias which in fact it makes sense for us to exhibit because, on average, it will produce an answer which is “good enough.”
One thing we don’t like is work. If we have seen a claim a lot before, we don’t need to work too hard to decide whether it is true again. (This can also be seen as a processing fluency effect.) We are comfortable with the claim or the apparent information. I don’t need to think about the route to walk to the gym because I have done it a lot before and it always worked. This familiarity effect or ease of processing effect is fine in relation to the route to the gym. And there are going to be a lot of daily questions like that where it would be inefficient to reevaluate them.
This is all fine. However, it turns out that we also do this with false claims which we have seen often. That of course is going to be a huge problem. The Illusory Truth Effect is also known as the Reiteration Effect for this reason. Basically, if I tell you something which is false a lot of times, you are likely to get comfortable with it and more likely to believe it.
This will have frequent damaging effects in financial markets. For example, in the case of the Bitcoin bubble, which I forecast approximately three days before the peak:
— there are I think some causal factors deriving from the Illusory Truth Effect, though as I discuss there, there are many other psychological biases and errors at work in the bitcoin bubble.
In particular, what we saw in the case of the Bitcoin bubble was the cult-like nature of the phenomenon. Proponents of the cryptocurrency repeated hundred of times the same false claims like “it can only go up;” “Bill Gates is enthusiastic about it;” or “all we have to do is HODL (sic) and everything will be fine.” Cult members believed all of this partly because they had heard it all many times and so they became familiar with it.
Turning to the professional sphere, we can expect that the Illusory Truth Effect will play a part in any bubble involving more than just the inexperienced investors who became infected in the Bitcoin epidemic. DotCom caught a lot of people (including myself, because I was young and inexperienced.). We heard many times that anything involving the internet was going to be a huge success. So we started to believe it.
There are many features of markets that are true until they aren’t. Try to avoid believing something merely because you have heard it a lot. Look for evidence.
Evaluations made later in a sequence are more positive — what effects will this have on the thinking of investors?
It is no secret that people dislike working hard. The corollary is that they like not working hard. This much is well-known, but perhaps less obvious is that this can affect our judgments. There are various experiments reported in the psychological literature which show that if a scenario is arranged such that the people involved are having a better time, or working less hard, they will make more positive judgements. This can be quite alarming. For example, it has been shown that judges making parole decisions are more likely to be lenient right after lunch and more strict before it.
A recent experiment has expanded this literature in a direction which I think is interesting in a financial markets context. The University of Virginia’s O’Connor and Cheema, writing in Psychological Science in the issue of 01 May 2018, describe a bias of this type. I will term it the Late Evaluation Bias. They observe the following.
Evaluations become more positive when conducted later in a sequence
The authors examined three particular types of evaluation. These were those made by judged across 20 years of Dancing With The Stars, university professors who had taught the same course for several years and people judging short stories over a couple of weeks. In each case, they found that evaluations became more positive as time went on.
I think this is a variant of the types of bias I mentioned at the outset. People find it easier to do something when they have more practice doing it. This means they need to put in less effort so they will find it less like hard work. This is fine, but the strangeness is that this will then lead them to make more positive evaluations. Note that this is rightly called a bias since it will lead to a systematically false evaluations.
How might this play out in financial markets? One simple and obvious answer is that investors will tend to be more positive than they ought to be when evaluating a stock they have evaluated many times before. Someone who has looked at owning GE stock many times in the past will be more likely to find it easier to do again and will therefore be more likely than is justifiable to come to a positive decision on that stock. This could feed into bubbles such as Bitcoin, although there is no reasoned positive evaluation possible of that cryptocurrency since it is valueless on fundamentals.
Similarly, people will evaluate asset classes with which they are more familiar more positively than they ought to. This could be behind the well-known and expensive tendency in investors to be over-invested in their home markets. This tendency can be avoided without entering dangerous frontier markets. US investors could safely invest in the UK market without taking much additional risk and vice versa. Both groups would gain valuable diversification.
People who have never bought a corporate bond will find it harder to evaluate than an equity if they have considered equities many times previously. This will also rob them of a potentially valuable diversification. The answer, as it often is, is to do more work!
There are correlations between taste preferences and personality (disorders) which are also highly present on the trading floor — so check your tastes to see if you are already likely to be a winner!
Evidence has been reported that there are correlations between liking certain bitter tastes and certain personality factors. Personality as generally understood does not really exist; the belief to the contrary is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. However, there are some stabilities in character which are or approach being diagnosable as “personality disorders.” These though are very much in the eye of the beholder in terms of whether or not they impair effectiveness. It turns out that these same personality stabilities are highly prevalent in competitive professions, so these people must be doing something right.
Researchers from the University of Innsbruck reported as follows:
Individual differences in bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits
Bitter tastes are basically self-explanatory. Marmite and gin and tonic are two obvious examples, but tea or coffee without sugar could be others. One might also start looking at wine types.
The authors found robust correlations between preferences for such bitter tastes and the Dark Tetrad, which is the Dark Triad plus everyday sadism. The Dark Triad is one of the stable factors in personality. It consists of Machiavellianism, psychoticism/psychopathy, and narcissism, at levels below threshold for diagnosis as a personality disorder.
Machiavellianism could also be termed manipulativeness. It reflects how likely someone is to be devious or to manipulate others for their own benefit. Psychosis means susceptibility to delusions. Some false beliefs — especially false positive beliefs about the self — are correlated with individual success.
Some authors in the literature include psychopathic tendencies instead of psychosis. These tendencies come from a wide potential array of behaviours. Some or all of the following may be present:
manipulation of others
lack of remorse and/or guilt
lack of empathy
failure to accept responsibility
lack of realistic life goals
poor behavioral controls
early childhood behaviour problems
Obviously some of these are very unhelpful. But we can imagine that others could be extremely useful.
Narcissism is an extreme level of self-absorption and self-belief. This looks as though it will be really quite useful in terms of allowing people to fail repeatedly with no adverse ego consequences.
We know that the Dark Triad –and presumably also the Dark Tetrad, since that is very similar — are heavily over-represented in certain professions. That is: investment banking, journalism and politics. All of these professions are extremely competitive and perhaps also require a certain amount of ability to exploit others. This can therefore explain why the Dark Triad would often be seen on the trading floor as well.
Of course, this shows correlation rather than causation. However, since we have a plausible explanation as well as a correlation — it seems likely that being a Dark Triad person will be valuable when trading. And now, since we have observed correlations* with bitter taste preferences, there is an easy way to check!
Getting your trading psychology right and understanding that of others are both essential prerequisites to successful trading in financial markets. I discuss the most important elements of trading psychology in my new book.
Buy the book here:
Thanks to Karine Sawan and film crew for video production.