Personal Finance FAQ

Monkey Brain Can’t See the Other Side

Monkey Brain can’t see through this.

“When you jump to conclusions, you often skip over the truth.”

How often have you fallen into this trap?

Let’s say that you’re looking for the answer to a particularly thorny question that can have good, strong arguments on both sides. A good example is whether or not you should use extra money to invest or pay down your mortgage. While I think there’s a right answer (you’ll have to read the article I linked to in order to find out what it is), I don’t think that there’s a bad answer.

So, if you’re like most people, you hop onto Google (which still needs to be reminded that I am a registered investment advisor in Fort Worth) and ask the question. A gazillion results come up, so you click on the first one that appears.

Chances are pretty decent that the author of the article that you read will have a strong opinion one way or the other.

After reading the article, depending on what that author’s point of view was, you either stroke extra checks to pay down the principal or you stash the money in your brokerage account. That is, of course, assuming that you’re not one of those who is beset by analysis paralysis.

Furthermore, you’ll be extremely confident that you’ve chosen the right path and start to feel sorry for those suckers who make, what in your mind is now the “wrong” decision about what to do.

According to research by Nobel Prize winning economist Amos Tversky and his team at Stanford, you’ve fallen for a very common psychological hiccup.

Monkey Brain Jumps to Conclusions Without a Parachute

In Tversky’s research, the team asked participants to listen to one side or another in several cases or to act as the jury and listen to both sides. Both sides had equally compelling arguments, so there was no clear “winner” of the presentation. Thus, when the participants acted as jurors, they generally split down the middle of the voting. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not they only heard one side of the argument or both, the participants were asked to estimate how the jury itself would vote and how confident they were in their estimates.

For those of you who are new here, Monkey Brain is what I call our limbic system in the brain. He doesn’t like thinking hard because that takes work, and Monkey Brain is allergic to work. Any time he gets to take the easy route, he’s going to choose it.

In this case, when presented with a coherent, rational, and reasonably strong argument, Monkey Brain locks in on a phenomenon called confirmation bias – meaning that once he hears information that seems credible, believable, and to his liking, he’s going to adopt that position.

Since the people who were only given one side of the story would be forced to contemplate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the other side’s arguments without actually hearing them, it’s easier to create a reinforcing mental loop than to go through all of that effort.

We like congruence in our beliefs and our actions. When we hear a one-sided argument that sounds good, it’s easier to tell ourselves that we like that side, and, therefore, we believe it. Thus, when we tell ourselves we believe the argument, we create the opportunity for the confirmation bias of that argument to support our newfound belief that the side we’re listening to is the correct one.

Furthermore, because we’ve created this mental loop, and because Monkey Brain thinks he’s infallible (he did, after all, come from ancestors who survived getting eaten or squashed by woolly mammoths), we become very confident in our decision to back the side that we’ve just heard. We accept all of the premises of the argument as true and cannot believe other sane, rational people would come to any other conclusion.

As the research from Tversky’s team shows, it’s only when we’re forced to consider the other side’s arguments, such as what jurors would listen to, that we actually come to a more balanced and reasoned conclusion.

Therefore, when you’re looking for the answers to the nagging questions in your financial life, since Monkey Brain isn’t going to do it for you, you need to force yourself to look at the other side of the argument.

Ask yourself questions, such as:

  1. What would the other side argue about this question?
  2. Why wouldn’t someone believe what I just read?
  3. How would the other side address the points I just read about?
  4. What evidence would make me disbelieve what I just read?

Alternatively, you could just hop back onto Google and look for answers that support the other side of the argument. Go read an article supporting the other side.

Then make your decision.

Otherwise, you’ll start to believe everything you read on the Internet is true.

How do you consider both sides of an argument (if you do at all)? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!


Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business.

You can read more about him in the About Page.

3 replies on “Monkey Brain Can’t See the Other Side”

I think most people aren’t convinced by one article written by a stranger, but rather they go looking for support and find it. Once they see that others agree they have social proof and know that they can “hide in the crowd” if it’s a mistake. I’m writing this on a new phone that I got yesterday after consciously researching it with a confirmation bias. With modern smartphones and good financial moves there is no bad answer so this is OK. However there is more social proof for bad financial moves.

Richard – Thanks for commenting! That’s a really interesting perspective. Do you think there’s more social proof for bad moves? I liken it to the entrepreneur who racks up a credit card bill and then has to shut down the business. There are a lot more of them that there are Snapchats, but the Snapchat story is the one with all of the social proof. Would one article by a stranger with enough social proof be enough to convince people? I know seeing tons of shares and upvotes has an influence on me when I’m looking at something I don’t know much about.

Absolutely, when the downsides are hidden and a lot of people are doing it that creates a powerful feeling that it “can’t be that bad”, especially if it looks fun! Bad ideas can have social proof according to what I call the Lottery Theory – everyone wants to win the lottery but that doesn’t do them any good.

I think people who are better prepared often talk about it less for various reasons. If their actions were more visible the social proof would be more balanced. I think the numbers are still too small, so people can say Warren Buffet is just one person and we can’t all follow is advice (as the Romans would say, “we can’t all be Catos”). But with more information being public online these days it is certainly easier to find a crowd for less popular ideas.

As far as the influence of a single article there are a lot of factors. I relied on some reviews from a site I had never heard about but the name sounded authoritative and it looked like it had a large audience. There are some well-known ways to quickly make a connection with readers who have never heard about you before but they can be used for misleading purposes too.

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