I have always been fascinated by birds. They are truly amazing creatures, and the more I learn about them, the more amazed I get. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of discovering a robin’s nest on a windowsill or a hawk’s nest in a nearby tree. Or perhaps you put up backyard bird feeders or a wren house every year. Birds remind us that there’s a larger world out there, beyond our day-to-day cares. As author and bird expert David Sibley writes: “Birding is a hobby that can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, and at any time, and it requires no specialized skills.” It is a deeply satisfying pastime and just being outdoors seems to restore my soul every time I go out.
My interest in birds has steadily grown in recent years, expanding to include bird photography and recording bird songs. It’s a hobby that’s full of surprises, so what I learned when I first started recording bird songs shouldn’t have surprised me at all, but it did: the outdoor world is a very noisy place. If you think you can just go out and record, say, the song of that scarlet tanager or prothonotary warbler you were able to find, be forewarned: the odds of achieving a clean, clear recording are close to zero.
Besides the fact that birds naturally move around a lot, our outdoor environment has almost constant noise pollution, which can obscure the pure beauty of the haunting song of a wood thrush, for example (check it out here). In addition to the sound of planes, trains, and automobiles, the wind blowing through the trees can be a problem, as well as someone using their leaf blower in a nearby neighborhood or a group of motorcyclists easily racing through a speed trap on a distant expressway. Sometimes it’s the singing of other nearby birds that obscures the target bird’s song. Nobody said recording bird audio would be easy.
All of which brings me to the obvious point of this blog post: noise distracts and detracts from the thing that we are most interested in. It turns out that noise, broadly conceived, is a pervasive problem in many fields of human endeavor. A new book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and two colleagues, appropriately entitled Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement, compares the two most common errors in human judgement, bias and noise. They write that the “topic of bias has been discussed in thousands of articles and dozens of popular books, few of which even mention the issue of noise.” In real-world decision making, noise, as opposed to bias, often escapes attention, but can be alarmingly high. Here are a couple of examples from the book:
- Medicine is noisy. Faced with the same patient, different doctors make different judgments about whether patients have skin cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis, pneumonia, depression, and a host of other conditions. Noise is especially high in psychiatry, where subjective judgment is obviously important.
- Forecasts are noisy. Professional forecasters offer highly variable predictions about likely sales of a new product, likely growth in the unemployment rate, the likelihood of bankruptcy for troubled companies, and just about everything else. Not only do they disagree with each other, but they also disagree with themselves.
Noise, as Kahneman conceives of it, is less about prejudice for or against something or someone in decision making (that would be bias). Noise has to do with the dispersion of opinions around an outcome, such as doctors arriving at different medical diagnoses or judges handing down different sentences for similar crimes.
How does this apply to decisions we make about our own financial situation or our investment portfolio? Noise can take the form of anything that distracts us from achieving our long-term financial goals. The most common source of noise is the financial media. We are constantly bombarded with financial news headlines which, for some of us, can induce us to ask ourselves “What should I do about this?”
As I write this, a perfect example appeared in this morning’s online Wall Street Journal: “Inflation Rate Hit Nearly 13-Year High in May”. What is your gut reaction? “Wow, that’s bad news. Stocks go down when inflation goes up, don’t they? I’d better sell something.” Headlines like this can trigger an emotional response, such as fear or anxiety, which often come to us unbidden from within ourselves. But we can always choose how we respond to these emotions once we’ve experienced them.
I’m not saying that you should ignore all financial news, but if you’re the type of person who tends to have a visceral need to do something when seeing headlines like this, it may be good to limit your media intake. Another way to deal with this kind of noise is to step back, take a deep breath, and remember the financial plan you have in place. That plan was designed to help you achieve your long-term financial goals, but it won’t tell you what to do when the price of Bitcoin falls 40% in one day, for example, or when a pandemic causes the economy to shut down. If you just can’t help yourself in dealing emotionally with the most recent piece of bad economic news, you can always call your Coyle Financial advisor.
My job, of course, requires the constant consumption of financial news, research and data. So how do I handle it when my emotions try to get the best of me? You guessed it: I grab my binoculars, camera, and recording device and head outdoors. Try it sometime. It just might restore your soul.
John serves as Chief Investment Officer for Coyle Financial Counsel and is responsible for overseeing the investment process. John’s prior experience includes managing institutional fixed-income portfolios for corporations, pension funds, non-profit organizations and foundations at several large, global asset managers. With more than 20 years of institutional investment experience, he is energized by helping individuals understand the role investing plays in meeting their long-term financial goals.
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 The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Edited by C. Elphick, J. Dunning, Jr., D.A. Sibley, 2001, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
 Kahneman, Daniel; Sibony, Olivier; Sunstein, Cass R. (2021-05-17T23:58:59). Noise. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.