Investing's Biggest Irony: Everyone Thinks They're a Contrarian

Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize in economics last year for his research on spotting market bubbles. He's also a pioneer of behavioral finance, developing brilliant explanations for how psychology causes us to do dumb things with our money. 

Shiller didn't just see last decade's housing bubble coming; he was in a position to do something about it. From 1990 to 2004, Shiller sat on the economic advisory panel of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, holding the attention of the only people in the world powerful enough to stop the housing bubble by raising interest rates.

So here's the trillion-dollar question: Did Shiller warn his Fed colleagues that the housing bubble was doomed to burst, taking the economy down with it?

Yes -- but only timidly.

"I felt the need to use restraint," Shiller said in Dan Gardner's book, Future Babble. "The consensus in the group was that there was no bubble and no need to raise interest rates. To suggest otherwise was distinctly uncomfortable. I [made my point] very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views."

Shiller summed up the experience perfectly: "Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated."

Here is a man of unquestioned authority who had conviction in his beliefs and understood -- no, discovered -- the psychological tricks our brains play on us when thinking about money.

Yet he still felt pressure to conform.

If Shiller is vulnerable to groupthink, believe me, you and I are, too.

The word "groupthink" was first used not to describe amateur lemmings, but coined in a 1972 study showing how seasoned professionals working in their field of expertise tended to follow each other off a cliff toward bad decisions. It doesn't matter how much experience or education you have in a subject. Most of us are hardwired from birth to follow the crowd.

One of the biggest ironies in investing is that while almost everyone thinks they are a contrarian, almost no one actually is. I remember 2007, right before the market peaked. Just about everybody I knew thought they were a value investor, zigging where others zagged. But at investing conferences, you found out that all these guys were basically buying the same stocks. What people thought was a contrarian view was actually rampant groupthink. It felt great when you, the "contrarian," had your views confirmed by another "contrarian." But contrarianism isn't supposed to feel good, and you're not supposed to have it confirmed by others. That's why so few can actually do it. It's rare -- not impossible, but rare -- that someone can remain blissfully content when everyone else around them thinks they're crazy. One of the nastiest tricks our minds play is convincing nearly all of us that we can be that person.

After World War II, there was widespread fear and curiosity about societies conforming to a unified belief, namely communism. Sociologists began studying how humans conform, and conducted some fascinating studies.

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch brought a group of students together and asked them to solve a set of problems, such as whether two lines were the same length. These were simple problems with obvious answers. But several of the students weren't trying to pick the right answers. They were actors working for Asch, purposely giving the wrong answers in front of their peers. 

Asch repeated the study with varying numbers of actor-students blurting out the wrong answers. His conclusion: Three-quarters of the test subjects went along with the actors' wrong answers at least once. In any given experiment, at least one-third of test subjects ignored the obvious answer and followed the actors. Just one in four consistently gave the right answer even when their acting peers disagreed with them.

Even when everyone around you is giving an obviously wrong answer, your tendency to second-guess yourself, not want to embarrass yourself, and your natural desire to fit in can trump every bit of rationality you think you have.

Rather than assuming you can be a contrarian investor, and learning the hard way that you can't, I think it's better to put your finances on some form of autopilot, especially if you can build a contrarian bent into that system. It's how you become a smart investor while taking emotions out of the equation.

Dollar-cost averaging -- investing the same amount of money each month come rain or shine -- is one of the best ways to do this. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to invest in index funds. Investing, say, $1,000 a month, every month, into a group of your favorite stocks might beat saving up cash and tactically trying to get in after a market crash. This is probably the most sensible strategy for investors with a history of following the crowd to buy-high, sell-low disappointments.

If you're investing a mix of stock and bond index funds, rebalancing your portfolio at the same time each year is another way to automatically become a contrarian. Say you want a portfolio with 80% stocks and 20% bonds. If stocks have a great year and push your portfolio to 85% stocks and 15% bonds, you sell a portion of your stocks and use the proceeds to buy bonds until the 80/20 ratio is back in balance. Do this every year. You'll probably do great over time.

Still think you have the disposition to be a contrarian? The best way I know to go about this is to plan out your contrarianism ahead of time. I do this with a chart directing how much money I plan to invest when the market falls by a certain amount. My goal is to use history to guide my contrarianism, investing enough money in moderate market downturns while keeping a sufficient amount to take advantage of lower prices if things get worse. If I had $1,000 in my contrarian fund, I'd deploy it like this:

Market falls by this much

I invest this much

Historical frequency

10%

$100

Every 11 months

15%

$220

Every 24 months

20%

$300

Every four years

30%

$130

Every decade

40%

$125

Every few decades

50%

$125

2-3 times per century

What's important is that you understand that your ability to think you're a contrarian is probably not as powerful as your innate desire to fit into crowds. Anything you can do today to make investing less emotional will make you a better investor tomorrow. 

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 

 


Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (55)

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  • Report this Comment On February 14, 2014, at 12:40 PM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    When I first starting working over 30 years ago a coworker said "avoid groupthink, come to work each day willing to get fired".

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 2:05 AM, Franko1000 wrote:

    I disagree...

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 8:41 AM, heartLA wrote:

    Very insightful, with great advice. Thank you!

    It also seems like a motive of Shiller's would have been simple self-preservation to retain a powerful position. That's a strong force with ethical and personal integrity vs. fear and comfort implications.

    I believe that when it comes to your example, this is at much at play as the psychology of "groupthink." However, no matter how you got there, your observations and recommendations about "contrarianism" are really helpful--especially since they are so actionable.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2014, at 5:29 PM, Mainepilot wrote:

    With so many folks fleeing emerging markets, is it time to put money into an emerging market ETF or mutual fund?

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 3:29 PM, Mega wrote:

    Trying to be contrarian is a waste of time. I just try to be right.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 4:08 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ You're wrong ;-)

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 4:18 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    More seriously, if you really want to be contrary, you have to put up with the distaste others have for the disagreeable. And then there is the perception that you are an idiot for...ummm selling your house and renting when everyone else is buying two more and flipping them, or selling out of Bonds and Bond funds entirely when prices are soaring to record highs, or cutting back on stocks when we are in a straight line rise to new records and the alternative investments are crap...or...or...or.

    Think clearly about what is the biggest choicest, juicyest, morsel of gain dangling out there where EVERYBODY can profit from it, and you are a dolt for not.. like TULIPS!! OR, just imagine how much money you can make from hedge funds right now, the ones not run by Bernie Madoff.

    Then decide if you are looking stupid to actually accomplish something or looking stupid just because... Its not easy being a curmudgeon. I have to practice all the time... and listen to my spouse say "you don't need any practice"!!

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 12:30 PM, ffbj wrote:

    Interesting article. Being aware of your own predilections is important in investing. Recent studies have indicated that dollar cost averaging into index funds, is as Jack Bogle says, the most consistent way to make money in the market.

    One thing you could do is never tell people what you think nor listen to their opinions about stocks.

    Probably very difficult or not possible.

    Having lived in 10 states, and a few countries over the years I got to experience various viewpoints. I came to the conclusion that as in the song line:

    "Everyone knows that the world is filled with stupid people." But knowing this does not make you smart, since even the stupid people know it, since they are included. in the set of everyone .

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 7:33 PM, foolcycle wrote:

    I bet a lot of people would be eager to deploy their contrarian funds more often. How often, on average, does the market drop by 5% or 7.5%? How would you revise your investing table to take advantage of smaller but more frequent drops in the market?

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 9:19 PM, neamakri wrote:

    Here's what contrarian means to me. When a bunch of stocks fall for no real financial reason, I look for value and put my money on the line. Hey I like a bargain, no matter what the crowd is doing.

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 11:47 AM, MaxTheTerrible wrote:

    Am I a contrarian in thinking that I am not a contrarian then?

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 12:21 PM, adasand wrote:

    Most investors have very big egos, so it is natural

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 12:23 PM, thunderboltnova wrote:

    We groupthink because we all watch the same news media and read the same articles such as this one.

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 2:19 PM, kahunacfa wrote:

    Quoting from the article:

    "If Shiller is vulnerable to groupthink, believe me, you and I are, too." and,

    "The word "groupthink" was first used not to describe amateur lemmings, but coined in a 1972 study showing how seasoned professionals working in their field of expertise tended to follow each other off a cliff toward bad decisions. It doesn't matter how much experience or education you have in a subject. Most of us are hardwired from birth to follow the crowd."

    By taking outstanding university courses such as Applied Security Analysis at the Finance Department of the University of Wisconsin, Madison <link UWASAP.org> such as KCFA once did, "Group Think" can be avoided. By attending Officer Candidate School, one can develop the training to have full courage of one's convictions -- unlike the timid Shiller.

    Kahuna, CFA

    Investment Professional

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 7:05 PM, whyaduck1128 wrote:

    I spent four years attending and graduating from a Catholic university, then ten years in the corporate world before I decided to tell them to shove all their you-know-what. I'm quite aware of how groupthink works, and how conformity with it is valued over being right. I haven't missed the corporate world for a minute, other than the financial side.

    When it comes to investing, I have always scoffed at the self-styled "contrarians". Like those who pose as "rebels" in their social lives, like those who pretend to be "rogue" or "maverick" in politics, it's much more acting than reality. The true rogue, maverick, contrarian, or rebel doesn't care about labels; she/he/it just does her/his/its thing.

    It's the same thing as the "hipsters" who try so desperately hard to be "cool", not realizing that those who are or were truly cool didn't have to try; they just were.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2014, at 12:10 PM, ALLWIN wrote:

    WOW.......! Very insightful, informative and readily user-friendly all wrapped up in one! WOW!

    Much thanks.

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