Virtually everyone believes that the key to investing and trading success lies in a better read (and execution on) probabilities. “Expert” after expert, from retail educators like “Be_a_GR8Trdr” to financial engineering labs in Boston, rely on this assumption.

Assumption” you say? “It isn’t an assumption Denise! It is truth!” Oh really?

First, if it is such a natural truth – like gravity or the sun rising in the east – then why is it so unnatural to do it? Why do day-traders fail at it at an alarming rate while institutions (with their MBA’s and statisticians) also fail at it has been demonstrated through the now 1000’s of behavioral finance studies and real world examples?

Aside from that basic question is the even more important one of “how does the human brain most successfully process market data“? And luckily The Journal of Finance has finally decided to publish what in my opinion is essentially earth-shattering research by Quartz, Bossaerts and Bruguier of The California Institute of Technology. This seminal and singular piece of research sheds a whole new light on the neurological processes involved in accurately reading markets. (And to boot it in turn explains why so many traders fail and why so many institutional traders can get it wrong!)

In short, …”tests show that Theory of Mind (ToM), rather than mathematical, abilities are better predictors of success in forecasting stock markets“.

Of course this begs the question… “what does that mean”? ToM is basically the ability to read other people. It is the mental capacity where you can imagine/see/”know” what they are thinking and feeling and therefore be better predictors of their coming choices of action. (See wikipedia)

In other words, if we go back and look for example at a very public decision – that of Hank Paulson to let Lehman go bankrupt – it had everything to do with the pressure he was under over the idea of “moral hazard” and very little to do with anything else.

Now that example doesn’t help you much when the market is slow and plodding and range bound but I use it because in retrospect it helps people see how a concerted effort in the Summer of 2008 to understand the human dynamics of the decision makers scenarios would have yielded a better idea about what was likely to happen. What I mean by that is if you specifically tried to play out the possibilities post Bear Stearns and pre-Lehman…. you would have come up with “they let at least one bank fail”. Once you had that idea you could see AIG was going down too!

Conversely all the modeling and probability thinking in the world would NEVER have gotten you there!

You can read the original research yourself @ Encoding Financial Signals in the Brain … or on the Social Science Research Network. (The latter compels me to point out that Antoine (Tony), whom I have been bugging for over two years about this, is an Electrical Engineer and he was kind enough to email me this week and let me know the paper had finally been accepted!)

Now the question is how much will the behavioral finance tendencies of status-quo and confirmation bias kick in … and prevent a large majority of people who care about reading markets from really grasping how to capitalize on an assumption turned upside down?