Column, Money Matters

Uncertainty, outcomes and our decisions

By Kevin Theissen

The brain has a lot of gray matter but hates gray areas. As a planning machine, the brain needs information that is certain so it can figure out the best course of action. And when we don’t get certain information, we get agitated. Perhaps you have said, “I don’t care if the news is good or bad, just tell me what it is. Not knowing is the worst.”

Probability Problem

Whenever there is uncertainty (almost always) we must rely on probabilities to help us make the best decision. But considering probabilities requires a lot of thought and analysis. It means we have to think statistically, which most of us prefer not to do. Instead, we simplify probabilities whenever possible. Remember the election of 2016? It was said that the election polling was wrong because Trump won. But the polls were giving Trump a 28% chance of winning.

The problem was that our brain took that probability and simplified it to zero. We all want to know what is going to happen in the markets. In the face of uncertainty, we seek out some degree of certainty – even an illusion of certainty.

We are attracted to forecasters and market experts who will tell us what is going to happen. And we confuse their popularity and confidence with their ability to predict the future.

Investing takeaway

The truth is we can think of a lot of things that have occurred that cause investors and “experts” alike to scratch our heads. Surprises and uncertainty are just about the only certainty in the financial markets.

We can’t control the markets or the economy. We can’t rely on expert forecasts, no matter how confident they sound. Even those forecasts with low or high probabilities aren’t sure things – sometimes the unexpected happens.

But we can control how we respond…the choices we make. A financial plan provides guidance and structure. It needs to be coupled with a behavioral plan – how we will respond to the uncertainties and surprises. Let’s focus our time and energy this election season on those things we can control – the financial and behavioral plan.

Kevin Theissen is the owner of HWC Financial in Ludlow.

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