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Poke the Box: Look at the Sky…but Please Ask Why

Let’s Start with Safal Niveshak
Just in case you missed any of this on Safal Niveshak over the last few days…

  • Released StockTalk 2.0 report on leading oil and gas exploration and production company Cairn India. See some interesting discussion in the Comments section of the report.
  • Shared Charlie Munger’s wisdom on living a happy life and getting rich.
Mental Model of the Week: Social Proof

Have you ever been in a situation when you looked at the sky, or at something, just because someone else was staring there? Like in this image below…


I remember playing a few of such pranks during school days, when a group of us friends started looking at the sky and then giggling at passers-by following us in doing so.

It’s another matter that I did not realize then that I was getting the passers-by to indulge in what psychologists call as “social proof”.

As per Wikipedia, social proof is – …a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.

In simple words, social proof is all about ‘what-you-think-I-think…what-you-do-I-do”.

Social proof is what is at work in canned laughter – what you hear in comedy shows. The reason such laughter exists is because it causes the audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier.

In fact, you will hear the laughter even when there’s nothing to laugh about. I propose they add such laughter to business channels as well, so that people stressed hearing the experts can get a few laughs. 🙂

Social proof applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behaviour. We view a behaviour as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.

Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theatre, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or what to put on the plate at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.

Social proof works to both our advantage and disadvantage. When someone shouts “Bomb!” at a packed theatre, it pays to run with others for safety without being analytical.

It also helps us find books we’ll like (Amazon reviews), restaurants to eat at (Zomato, Burrp), and places to travel (TripAdvisor). We don’t make our decisions in a choice vacuum. Our social circles influence our actions and our purchases, and that’s normal.

Anyways, social proof also works in stock market investing.

Why do you think most of us are always on the lookout for others’ opinions on the stocks we own or want to own?

Social proof is the reason you will find most fund managers owing similar stocks in their portfolios. The thinking is – “If I outperform, I will be a star…but if I underperform, I will be like others!”

But then, Somerset Maugham said, “If 40 million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one.”

You will scold your child who misbehaves and then says, “But everybody else is doing it.” Have you ever scolded yourself for investing like everyone else is doing?

Social proof also works at a bigger level…inside companies. That is what drives most CEOs to act like their peers. So they will acquire companies just because a competitor is doing so. And they will conduct accounting frauds just because many others are doing so!

Warren Buffett on Social Proof
Here is what Warren Buffett wrote to his managers in September 2006, when his peers in corporate America were all under the spell of social proof to justify their misdoings…

The five most dangerous words in business may be “Everybody else is doing it.” A lot of banks and insurance companies have suffered earnings disasters after relying on that rationale.

Even worse have been the consequences from using that phrase to justify the morality of proposed actions. More than 100 companies so far have been drawn into the stock option backdating scandal and the number is sure to go higher. My guess is that a great many of the people involved would not have behaved in the manner they did except for the fact that they felt others were doing so as well. The same goes for all of the accounting gimmicks to manipulate earnings – and deceive investors – that has taken place in recent years.

You would have been happy to have as an executor of your will or your son-in-law most of the people who engaged in these ill-conceived activities. But somewhere along the line they picked up the notion – perhaps suggested to them by their auditor or consultant – that a number of well-respected managers were engaging in such practices and therefore it must be OK to do so. It’s a seductive argument.

But it couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, every time you hear the phrase “Everybody else is doing it” it should raise a huge red flag. Why would somebody offer such a rationale for an act if there were a good reason available? Clearly the advocate harbors at least a small doubt about the act if he utilizes this verbal crutch.

Avoiding Social Proof
How to get over the social proof tendency? Here is some advice from Peter Bevelin’s Seeking Wisdom

  • The 19th Century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
  • What is popular is not always right. If you don’t like what other people are doing, don’t do it. Warren Buffett says: “We derive no comfort because important people, vocal people, or great numbers of people agree with us. Nor do we derive comfort if they don’t.”
  • Disregard what others are doing and think for yourself. Ask: Does this make sense? Remember the advice from Benjamin Graham, the dean of financial analysis – “Have the courage of your knowledge and experience. If you have formed a conclusion from the facts and if you know your judgment is sound, act on it – even though others may hesitate or differ. You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.”

Stimulate Your Mind
Here’s some amazing content I read during the week gone by…

  • It takes years to build a reputation, but a few moments to destroy it. Ask Rajat Gupta, the poster boy of what was right with Indians, and now, what is wrong with Indians.
  • Daniel Kahneman shares some wonderful insights on how your brain leads you astray, and how you can make sense of this senseless world. Watch the video or read the transcript.
  • Was Einstein the world’s worst husband? Wife ordered to keep room tidy, serve three meals a day – but expect NO affection… and she must stop talking when he demands it!
  • Why hotels don’t offer you toothpastes? Here’s the resolved mystery.
  • The world’s largest democracy is preparing to snoop on its citizens. Watch out for what you talk on phone or browse on the Internet!
Poke of the Week – Ask “Why?”

“Why can’t I buy that toy, papa?” “You already have another one like that.” “But why can’t I buy one more?” “You won’t like playing with two similar toys. Isn’t it?”

“Why are you saying this?” “I know that dear, because I was a kid myself!” “Why have you grown up, papa? If you were still small, you could have played and enjoyed with me and my toys!”

“Everyone has to grow up, my baby!” “Why papa?”

Why? Why? Why?

If you’re a parent of a small child, you most likely hear this question several times during a day – “Why?”

While all children are inquisitive, there are some who love to prick your brain by asking questions until they find a satisfactory reply from you. My 8-year old daughter falls in this very category of hyper-inquisitives.

I find myself bombarded with her questions every now and then. There are some questions that I have replies for. And then there are many for which I have no replies.

But I enjoy her questions as they most often force me to think beyond the obvious to pull out the answers that satisfied her inquisitiveness.

There is a reason a child asks so many ‘Why?’ questions. And this is something most of us adults don’t understand.

The reason is that when a child asks a question on a subject she is not familiar with, she has no point of reference. She’s coming from nowhere in her inquisitiveness regarding her question.

It’s same as you walking into a space scientists convention. Would you be able to understand the intelligent discussion that’s going on, or even ask a simple question that didn’t give the scientists the hint that that you don’t fit in with the crowd?

I bet most of us couldn’t, because most of us have no point of reference regarding space science. Similarly, a child will continue to ask questions till the time she gets something that she understands and appreciates.

So ask questions. Don’t be afraid to show your ignorance!

Give yourself a license to expose your lack of knowledge about a particular subject, and ask “why is that?”

That’s the fastest way to get a little wiser each day.

By the way, can you please tell me if we call oranges ‘oranges,’ why don’t we call bananas ‘yellows,’ or apples ‘reds’? 🙂

If you haven’t done it already, sign up here to receive Poke the Box in your email…and get ready for stimulating Friday mornings.

Keep poking.

Look at the cloudy sky.

Keep asking why.

Till next Friday…

Vishal Khandelwal
Chief Poker – Poke the Box

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About the Author

Vishal Khandelwal is the founder of Safal Niveshak. He works with small investors to help them become smart and independent in their stock market investing decisions. He is a SEBI registered Research Analyst. Connect with Vishal on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ruchir Agarwal says:

    How many orange colored fruits are there – probably 1 – the orange itself.
    How many red colored fruits are there – i can think of 2 atleast – tomato and apple
    How many yellow colored fruits are there – at least 2 – banana and muskmelon.

    so if you call an apple red, what will you call tomato?

  2. I found the articles decent except for the one on toothpaste.

  3. Daniel Smith says:

    Love your insights. I do actually know why we call “oranges” “oranges”. Listen to the following podcast by Grammar Girl. A transcript is available on the site:

    Why Do We Call People Redheads Instead of Orangeheads? See here.

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