Elevator Button Controls

Maggie Mayer Portfolio Management, Retirement Planning

Door Close Button Placebo

How many of us have pushed the “Door Close” button on the elevator thinking it closed the door
faster? Interestingly that button on most elevators is a placebo. It does not actually close the
door faster. The sole purpose is to help impatient people have a better experience by giving
them the illusion of control. Riders get to hit something to reduce stress without harming late
arrivers. In addition, the doors will eventually close, so they get a feeling of accomplishment as
well. Thus, our mental health is preserved without us knowing it was even influenced.

It is interesting to learn ways our minds are subconsciously influenced. This elevator example
reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s (Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences) work on decision
making and the way our minds think. His book Thinking, Fast and Slow breaks thinking into two
systems: System 1 and System 2. As he describes it, System 1 does the 2 plus 2 math. The
quick, automatic, and effortless thinking. System 2 does the 17 times 24 math. The slower, more
deliberate, and analytical thinking.

Using this knowledge, we can go back to the elevator button scenario. The “Door Close” is
meant to satisfy our System 1 thinking. Quick action that helps satisfies our immediate
concerns. You push the button, the door eventually closes and you don’t question where there
was an actual cause and effect. System 2 would take a different approach. It might do a test to
see if there was actual cause and effect. It might analyze the actual speed of the door closing
with or without pushing the button. System 2 would take much longer to arrive at an answer, but
ultimately it would be more accurate.

What I like about Kahneman’s work the most is the humbleness in which he presents the
information. It would be easy for him to say that because of his research he is able to influence
his mind in much better ways than the rest of us. However, he doesn’t. Rather he states the
opposite. He says even though he wrote the book, it didn’t improve his mind. He is still prone to
the same mistakes. The only advantage is his ability to recognize situations in which errors are
more prone to occur.

Investing System and "Door Close" Buttons

We know that our minds are flooded daily with information. Most of the information is also trying
to market to our System 1 thinking. “President Trump tweeted, so buy this, sell that!” “Don’t
delay or it will be gone!” Not to say that System 1 is bad. For everyday decisions with lesser
long-term impact, System 1 works great. You need it to survive the many decisions you make in
a day. Intuition and experiences are quickly recalled with System 1.

However, longer-term, high impact decisions should be engaged by System 2. We must be
careful not to let System 1 run rampant. As Kahneman figured out, we need to recognize
situations where System 1 intuition errors are prone to happen. We can’t turn off the System 1
thoughts. We can only slow our reaction to them. That’s where our own personal “Door Close”
button comes into play. We recognize where intuition might not be the right choice. We hit the
button to slow things down. Like the elevator button, this doesn’t actually do anything. However,
it gives us back the illusion of control by giving System 2 a chance to verify.

Here’s a quick example of this playing out to help illustrate:
The media reports that the Federal Reserve is going to lower interest rates. Your friends are
encouraging you to sell something in your portfolio specifically because of this report. This is
where your System 2 should be notified to step in and take over for System 1. Push the button.
We are fortunate to work with a wonderful group of clients. We have learned many things over
the years by listening to your stories. For example, here are a few ways in which we have heard
people indirectly push the system 2 button over the years:

  • I turn off the computer
  • I change the TV channel
  • I walk the dog
  • I excuse myself from the conversation
  •  I call McCarthy Grittinger Financial Group


As Daniel Kahneman says, we cannot completely change the wiring in our minds. We can only
hope to be more aware of it. As we continue to move through the latter half of 2019, let’s all try
to remain vigilant about what our System 1 and System 2 are saying. This is not to say that our
decision-making process cannot or should not change. It can. However, let’s make sure we
take the right approach and are not overtaken by our quick intuition.
Enjoy your elevator travels!

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