Do happy faces cause dumb investments?

Could an investor be prompted to make a more risky financial decision when exposed to positive, optimistic stimuli, such as a smile on the face of someone recommending or selling an investment?

That’s the implication of research by Julie L. Hall, a doctoral student in personality and social psychology in the Cognitive Science & Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Michigan.

Hall and colleagues studied investment decisions made by 24 research subjects during a market simulation game. Some choices were high-risk and some were low-risk. Participants were shown pictures of happy, angry, or neutral faces before they carried out investment decison-making tasks.

Researchers also used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) during the tasks to see which areas of the brain “lit up” while participants were deciding which investments to follow.

Writing for New Scientist, Peter Aldhous describes how the game was set up (“Cheery Traders May Encourage Risk Taking,” April 7, 2009):

For every round of the game, the bond paid out $3. One of the stocks paid out $5 half of the time, while the other lost $5 at the same rate. At the start of the game, the players were told the rules but didn’t know which of the stocks was good and which was bad: that only emerged as the game unfolded. As with real-world investments, the good stock became bad at certain points during the game, and vice versa.

As Hall and colleagues anticipated, the positive stimuli caused increased activity in areas of the brain associated with anticipation of a reward and correlated with risky decision-making.

In introductory material to her March 23, 2009, presentation at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (“Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is: An fMRI Investigation of Affective Influences on Financial Investment Decisions,” Julie L. Hall, Richard Gonzalez, Oliver C. Schultheiss, Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting Program 2009):

As predicted, participants showed greater NAcc activation and were more likely to make risky investment decisions after happy versus neutral face primes in both the subliminal and supraliminal presentation conditions. In addition, participants also showed greater anterior insula activation and made slightly less risky investment decisions after angry versus neutral face primes during supraliminal presentation conditions.

Hall concludes that

… facial expressions of emotion, even when they are not consciously perceived, can influence investment decisions and suggest that the inclusion of affect may lead to more accurate models of economic decision making, which better explain irrational financial behavior. They also suggest that affective states during pre-choice stages of the decision making process may alter the perception of benefits relative to costs, leading to changes in financial risk taking depending on whether the affective state is positive or negative.

Brian Knutson, a psychologist at Stanford University, has done similar research. He acknowledges, writes Aldhous, that “it is hard to determine the extent to which real financial markets are driven by similar emotional factors.”

However, Knutson has found that “the nucleus accumbens,” the brain area associated with risky investment decisions, “is activated when we are anticipating a reward.” For example, “showing men erotic pictures leads to similarly risky investment decisions.”

This fits with the Bubbleconomics proposition that infectious optimism contributes to economic bubbles and to the disastrous results.

Hall tells Adhous,

When risk-taking is a good thing, it’s good to be in a positive mood. When risk-taking is a bad thing, it’s not good.

AB — 7 April 2009