On attention, trading psychology and “open” minds

Dr. Brett N. Steenbarger, author of The Psychology of Trading and numerous articles on trading psychology , has posted a fascinating article titled Approaching Trading With an Empty Mind, where he describes the risks of becoming “prisoners of the mental maps we create”, and missing new patterns and realities, thereby preventing us from adapting, and succeeding, to new circumstances.

He quotes a book by Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, in which Gonzalez “has provided a concise formula for trading success: boldness and humility. The exemplary trader has the boldness to act with conviction, and the humility to realize that what is apparent may not be all that is there.”

Does this sound very abstract? Well, why don’t you try this little experiment, conceived by Simons and Chabris for their classic study on sustained inattentional blindness (1999).

You will watch a brief video clip, and your challenge is to count the total number of times that the basketballs change hands.

Click here to view the Basketball Experiment clip (To view it, you will need to have Java active in your browser. The video is fairly large, 7.5MB, and it might take a while to finish loading.)

You can read about the fascinating results here.

Why this is important for traders

Dr. Steenbarger warns traders “not to miss the gorillas in the market”, by keeping a humble and open mind, ready to pay attention to new and to learn.

In his book, Laurence Gonzalez suggests that the practice of Zen meditation may help train this mental attitude. Articles like this are examples of the growing importance of the field of behavioral finance and neurofinance, which are becoming fertile ground for training ideas that improve trading performance.

Why this is important for everyone

I have been giving a number of lectures on “New Brain Research and its Implications for Our Lives”, combining research findings with fun activities and experiments-such as the “Did you miss the Gorilla” above. Participants are usually shocked first by the proof that our brains are far from being as perfect as we usually believe they are…and then a tremendous collective laughter follows.

The point is: some times we need to narrow our focus in order to complete very demanding tasks, some times we need to keep an open mind, empty of constant mental chatter, in order not to miss the big picture. Practices like Zen, yoga, meditation in general, or, for the visual-and-technology oriented among us, biofeedback devices, may help to train this “keeping an open mind” muscle part of Brain Fitness.



  1. Chris Wu said

    This is a both a practical and deep topic. The roots of behavioral finance come out of much of the work done on creativity and mindfulness. See people such as Frank Barron/Torrance/Rogers. Philosophically these can be connected to phenomenological perspectives such as Merleau-Ponty & Heideggar (particulary how embodied cognition is not the Cartesian/Platonic ideal.

    Daniel McFadden’s work (which got him his Nobel) has a nice paper on “Rationality for Economists” where he critiques the rationality of the “Chicago” man.

    Alvaro – a sharp site for sharpbrains =) (Note I didn’t include my regular email address because of crawler concerns – You might want to allow people to put in emails such as myname_at_gmail.com)

  2. Michael Krot said

    I was in a group of 10 people the first time I counted the basketballs and we completely missed the “bigger picture”. That was two years ago. This time, I was able to track the balls and get up on the balcony and notice what else was going on. Perhaps evidence of a sharper brain. My experience between the first time and this time makes me curious about how other brain workouts might help with my perception.

  3. Alvaro said

    Chris, thanks for the lead, and the feedback on email addresses. The Daniel McFadden’s book sounds very interesting, starting with the title! What are its main conclusions?

    Michael: well, the second time you know what you are looking for, and were paying attention to both the balls and the gorilla. In most circumstances, it would not be the most efficient thing to divide attention, but we can do it when we want. And yes, there are some good computer-based packages to improve task-specific perception areas in an structured way, like peripheral vision for air pilots and basketball players.

  4. […] The fact is that there is much good around us, and much more good of us can do. We don’t always see it this way, but it is a fact (if you doubt this, why don’t you do the Basketball experiment in a previous post). We probably would benefit from having easier access to a CNN of Positive News, of Kind Gestures, Unexpected Generosity, Magic Coincidences, Beautiful Growth. […]

  5. whiteglover said

    I am kind of skeptical about the “Basketball Game” with the Gorilla. I played it and counted 21, and didn’t see a gorilla. Then I read about the Gorilla and played again and sure enought there she was, plain as the nose on my face.
    I did it a couple more times and realized that the tape was running a LOT faster the first time I played it. Is this a trick? A hoax? Did anyone else notice this?

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