Brain research plumbs our money emotions
September 25, 2005
Janet Kidd Stewart / The Chicago Tribune



Call it feng shui for investors. Investment advisers are rearranging the furniture, so to speak, in their clients' financial floor plan by casting decisions in the broader context of clients' lives. This "holistic financial planning" emerged as a dominant theme in this month's annual gathering of the Financial Planning Association in San Diego.

At the same time, in Charleston, S.C., researchers discussed their progress in probing the brain in an effort to one day harness the biological roots of investment decisions. Pioneers in this field of neuroeconomics have seen actual brain imaging evidence of our emotional investing cues.

What do the two events have in common? Both acknowledge what may be in investors' heads if not on their lips: Save me from myself!

Clients are asking for help in understanding the bigger picture behind what they do with their money, said Elizabeth Jetton, a financial planner in Atlanta and chairwoman of the planning association.

"Rather than starting with a questionnaire about numbers, we're trying to start with a conversation about what is the real outcome the client is trying to achieve," she said.

"We're trying to address all the areas of a person's life. It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You need to start with the picture on the box so you know what you're trying to create."

Not every client warms to this approach, Jetton said, but most do.

"During my first meeting with a client, which is usually two hours, we don't even look at their financial reports. We talk about what's important in their life to give me some context about their goals," she said.

The process also means looking at ongoing planning needs with an eye toward the more human elements, Jetton said. For example, lecturing a client on the technical aspects of succession planning falls on deaf ears if the client can't bring the subject up in conversation with relatives.

Part of the planner's role today, Jetton said, is teaching clients how to foster those conversations.

Meanwhile, scientists studying the link between neurobiology and economics explored the notion that there is a biological basis for the way we behave in casinos or in making investments.

Presenting data published last month in the scientific journal Neuron, researchers from Stanford University were among scientists gathered recently in Charleston for the third annual meeting of a fledgling discipline called neuroeconomics, a blend of the dismal science and brain studies.

The Stanford researchers, Camelia Kuhnen and Brian Knutson, used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of volunteers while they played an investment game.

Volunteers repeatedly made choices among two different stocks (one a good performer, the other considered especially risky) and a bond after being told they would get to keep a percentage of their winnings if successful. Researchers found an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens was active before volunteers chose the "riskier" investment, while the brain area called the anterior insula was active ahead of "risk-averse" mistakes, such as choosing the perceived safety of the bond over the "good" stock that delivered better returns.

Kuhnen and Knutson readily acknowledge that the real world has already figured a lot of this science out. Casinos already surround patrons with reward cues--free food and alcohol, surprise gifts--that help them to shift from risk-averse to risk-seeking behavior.

"But the research allows us to get under the hood and understand why this is happening, and ultimately suggests that we can independently manipulate our own cues," Knutson said. (Translation: Leave the casino.)

All of this is lofty stuff for investors just trying to understand their brokerage statements and sidestep the next bubble.

But taking some time to consider what's behind our financial emotions--and ultimately what we want our money to say about our lives--may pay dividends down the road.

"For a long time we only had blunt tools for assessing emotions," said Richard Peterson, a San Francisco psychiatrist who studies neuroscience and its link to money behavior. "As we understand more, we're going to be better able to identify our emotional cues to tell us when we're in a good situation or a dangerous one."

(source: The Chicago Tribune, September 25, 2005;,1,1504727.sotry?ctrack=1&cset=true)