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‘Emotional inflation’ leads to stock market meltdown

Investors get carried away with excitement and wishful ‘phantasies’ as the stock market soars, suppressing negative emotions which would otherwise warn them of the high risk of what they are doing, according to a new study led by UCL (University College London).

Economic models fail to factor in the emotions and unconscious mental life that drive human behaviour in conditions where the future is uncertain says the study, which argues that banks and financial institutions should be as wary of ‘emotional inflation’ as they are fiscal inflation.

The paper, published in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, explores how unconscious mental life should be integrated into economic decision-making models, where emotions and ‘phantasies’ – unconscious desires, drives and motives – are among the driving forces behind market bubbles and bursts.

Visiting Professor David Tuckett, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit, says: “Feelings and unconscious ‘phantasies’ are important; it is not simply a question of being rational when trading. The market is dominated by rational and intelligent professionals, but the most attractive investments involve guesses about an uncertain future and uncertainty creates feelings. When there are exciting new investments whose outcome is unsure, the most professional investors can get caught up in the ‘everybody else is doing it, so should I’ wave which leads first to underestimating, and then after panic and the burst of a bubble, to overestimating the risks of an investment.

“Market investors’ relationships to their assets and shares are akin to love-hate relationships with our partners. Just as in a relationship where the future is unexpected, as the market fluctuates you have to be prepared to suffer uncertainty and anxiety and go through good times and bad times with your shares. You can adopt one of two frames of mind. In one, the depressive, individuals can be aware of their love and hate and gradually learn to trust and bear anxiety. In the other, the paranoid schizoid, the anxiety is not tolerated and has to be detached, so the object of love is idealised while its potential for disappointment is ‘split’ off and made unconscious.

“What happens in a bubble is that investors detach themselves from anxiety and lose touch with being cautious. More or less rationalised wishful thinking then allows them to take on much more risk than they actually realise, something about which they feel ashamed and persecuted, but rarely genuinely guilty, when a bubble bursts. Again, like falling in idealised love, at first you notice only the best qualities of your beloved, but when everything becomes real you become deflated and it is the flaws and problems that persecute you and which you blame.

“Lack of understanding of the vital role of emotion in decision-making, and the typical practices of financial institutions, make it difficult to contain emotional inflation and excessive risk-taking, particularly if it is innovative. Those who join a new and growing venture are rewarded and those who stay out are punished. Institutions and individuals don’t want to miss out and regulators are wary of stifling innovation. If other investors are doing it, clients might say ‘why aren’t you doing it too, because they’re making more money than we are’.”

Jenny Gimpel | alfa
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