Loewenstein gave participants $20 and conducted 20 coin flips. Before each flip, they could keep a dollar or invest it: heads, they lose the dollar; tails they win $2.50. Given the 50-50 odds of a coin toss, a volunteer would on average pocket $25 by gambling every time but end up with only their original $20 if they never take the plunge — a situation where investing has a clear advantage.
"It's much better than you would get if you go to Las Vegas. It's better than you're going to get on Wall Street," he says. "But people are really deterred by losing the dollar."Healthy volunteers, whose emotions were intact, invested only 58 percent of the time, while patients with damage to their brain's emotional centers invested in 84 percent of the coin tosses. As a result they make more money.
"When we looked more carefully at the behavior of both the normal subjects and the control group with lesions to non-emotional parts of the brain, what we found was they started out investing at a fairly high rate and then they, over time, they tended to decrease their rate of investing," explains Loewenstein. "And when we looked more carefully at the data, what we found was that when they invested and they lost the money, they would get discouraged, and they'd get afraid for the future, and they would stop investing in the future, whereas the patients with the damage to the emotional parts of the brain were simply not deterred by losing money in the investment task."
Loewenstein says the healthy people may have felt safer with the money in hand, a feeling that overruled their logical thinking, adding that acting on emotions is what separates most of us from the pros. But he thinks we can train ourselves to separate fear from finances.
"If you get an email that, you know, sets you off, the best thing to do is to wait a day before you respond to it. The same is true in the market, that if you have a sudden urge to do something, wait a day and see if you still have the same urge a day later or maybe a week later, and then if you still want to do it maybe it's a good idea," he says.
Next, Loewenstein plans to look at how emotion impacts savings behavior.
Loewensteing's work was published in the June, 2005 issue of the journal Psychological Science, and was funded the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.