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Imagining Both Success And Failure Can Improve Decision Making

If you only imagine success, it creates an incomplete view of the future, just like only imagining failure creates an equally incomplete view.

Whether clients are deciding what route they should take to work, or if they should turn down a slice of cake, or take a new job, they’re making a prediction that the thing they choose has a better chance of helping them achieve their goals than the things they don’t choose. Likewise, when it comes to making choices to help them achieve their long-term investment goals, prediction skills are especially important.

The good news is that, especially with your help, the information for figuring out appropriate strategies to help achieve their goals is readily available. A sound, long-term investment plan is within every investor’s reach.


The Bad News Is That Figuring Out a Great Strategy Isn’t Enough

Clients also need to stick to that strategy. Not sticking to a strategy is one of the main reasons investors often fall short of reaching their financial goals. There will always be reversals in the market. Certain sectors will boom. Certain sectors will bust. Stocks will tank. Bonds will tank. In the face of those natural ups and downs, it can be hard for clients to resist second-guessing their strategy and changing it.

The result? Individual investors have underperformed the market. The S&P 500 Index1 returned an average of 5.62% annually between 1999 and 2018, while the average equity investor’s return has been just 3.88%.2

Many investors have an execution problem. So how can they address it?


Imagining Both Success And Failure Can Improve Decision Making

If you only imagine success, it creates an incomplete view of the future, just like only imagining failure creates an equally incomplete view.

Individual Investors Have Underperformed Market Indices2

Average Annual Returns for the 20 Year Period Ending 12/31/2018


Embracing the Negative Space: Mental Contrasting

Positive thinking has become one of the most popular genres of self-help books. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, first published in 1952, has sold more than five million copies worldwide and remains a favorite. A key ingredient these days takes positive thinking beyond goal-setting and general mindset to a promise: You’re more likely to succeed and reach your goals if you vividly imagine yourself doing so. It’s an attractive concept: Who doesn’t want to vividly imagine themselves experiencing phenomenal success?

But what goes along with this is the corollary: A type of magical thinking that you have to banish all thoughts of failure because even imagining failure will create failure. It’s uncomfortable to picture failure. It feels bad. Being told to avoid imagining failure has its own attractiveness.


In Fact, I Believe the Opposite Is True: Imagining Failure Can Be One of Your Clients’ Best Tools for Achieving Success

Imagining failure helps clients better foresee the obstacles that might get in the way of success. And the better they are at predicting the hazards in their path, the better their chances of avoiding them.

NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen has spent more than 20 years researching mental contrasting, an alternative to positive thinking that includes visualizing obstacles that can interfere with reaching goals. She found, in domain after domain—with groups of subjects trying to lose weight, build social relationships, find jobs, improve work performance, and recover from surgery—that people who imagine barriers and impediments are more successful at reaching their goals than those engaging only in positive visualization.


The Road to Success Is Not a No-Speed-Limits Superhighway With Zero Traffic

If that were the case, investors wouldn’t invest in index funds and then underperform the indexes by making deposits and withdrawals at the worst times. The road to success is littered with obstacles, whether those obstacles are market movements outside of their control, or the results of their decisions in the face of those movements.

Identifying these obstacles in advance is what clears the path to success because then you and your clients can figure out how to address and avoid them.


Mental Time Travel—Thinking Backwards, From the Future

One of the best ways to identify the obstacles is by engaging in mental time travel by doing a pre-mortem—an exercise in which clients, with your help, imagine having failed to reach their goal. We’re all familiar with post-mortems, originally the term for examining a dead body to determine the cause of death, and now a way we generally think about deconstructing why something has gone wrong.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could identify why something failed before it happens? That’s part of the pre-mortem’s power. A pre-mortem on why a client failed to achieve their goals may significantly increase their chances for success.


When We Imagine the Future, We Tend to Start With the Present and Think Forward

It’s natural: The future is inherently uncertain, and the further you project, the more uncertain everything seems. It definitely feels more comfortable starting on the solid ground of the present.

It turns out the better way for clients to reach their future goals can be by imagining they’re in the distant future and failed to reach their goals, and think their way backwards to figure out how they got there. In other words, instead of imagining the reasons they might fail, help them imagine the reasons that they have failed.

Professors Deborah Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington called this process prospective hindsight. They found working backwards in this way was 30% more effective in identifying obstacles.3


If you want to summit a mountain and you’re trying to plan the best route to the top, standing at the foot of the mountain doesn’t give you much of a view. You can see only what lies immediately ahead of you. But once you’ve gotten to the top of the mountain, you can see the entire landscape below. From the summit, you can see obstacles not visible from the base, as well as alternate routes that might have been safer or more efficient.


No One Plans to Panic

When clients are caught up in the emotions of the moment, say in the aftermath of some big upturn or downturn in their portfolio, that’s when their decisions will be at their worst. No one plans to sell in a temporary panic or cash out for a small gain and miss sustained market gains. But a pre-mortem makes it possible to identify these possible missteps and come up with strategies to avoid them.

The pre-mortem process is more effective if clients work through it in collaboration with you. You’ve worked with many investors and have seen the obstacles that trip up even the best-intentioned client. You can offer a valuable outside perspective, helping clients identify roadblocks that they might otherwise miss.


The Value of Positive Thinking

I’m not suggesting that it’s not useful to think about success. Rather, if clients only imagine success, it creates an incomplete view of the future, just like only imagining failure creates an equally incomplete view. Setting positive goals and imagining themselves achieving them is necessary for clients to create a complete picture.

“Backcasting” is the positive version of a pre-mortem: Clients imagine that they’ve achieved their goals and work backwards to figure out why. Backcasting will be the more fun and natural exercise. That’s partly why the positive thinking genre is so popular—because it feels really good to imagine success. Doing a pre-mortem doesn’t feel good, so many avoid it. Clients might even believe that imagining failure will actually create failure.

But when clients engage in mental time-travel from both potential destinations, they’ll get a much more complete view of the landscape that might lay ahead. That’s why the most successful investors are willing to explore the negative space by not just imagining success, but also imagining failure.


The Process I’m Describing Is Like Planning a Drive to a Destination

Why dig up a tattered old map for directions when you can use a top-tier navigation system—one that includes real-time updates that identifies areas with delays due to traffic or construction? If you can see those hazards more clearly, you can create the clearest road to success.

Author Headshot

Annie Duke is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner, the winner of the 2004 Tournament of Champions and the only woman to win the NBC National Poker Heads Up Championship. As a decision strategist, she merges her poker expertise with her cognitive psychology graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. She focuses on improving decision making and critical thinking skills, and developing individual and cultural supports to overcome cognitive bias. Annie Duke is not affiliated with Hartford Funds.

Next Steps

1 Download or order the client piece below
2 Do pre-mortem exercises with three clients
3 After doing the pre-mortem exercise, discuss and take notes about:
  • What decisions your client made?
  • What actions did they take?
  • What role did chance play in the outcome?


Find out what a decision strategist/former poker pro can teach you about investor behavior >

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1S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged list of 500 widely held U.S. common stocks frequently used as a measure of U.S. stock market performance. 

2Performance data for indices represents a lump sum investment in January 1999 to December 2018 with no withdrawals. Stocks are represented by the S&P 500 Index. Bonds are represented by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is comprised of government securities, mortgage-backed securities, asset-backed securities, and corporate securities to simulate the universe of bonds in the market.

3Mitchell, Russo, and Pennington, Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1/89 25-38. Most recent data available.

Dalbar’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior Methodology - Dalbar’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior uses data from the Investment Company Institute (ICI), Standard & Poor’s and Barclays Index Products to compare mutual fund investor returns to an appropriate set of benchmarks. Covering the period from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2018, the study utilizes mutual fund sales, redemptions and exchanges each month as the measure of investor behavior. These behaviors reflect the “average investor.” Based on this behavior, the analysis calculates the “average investor return” for various periods. These results are then compared to the returns of respective indices.

Average equity investor and average bond investor performance results are calculated using data supplied by the Investment Company Institute. Investor returns are represented by the change in total mutual fund assets after excluding sales, redemptions and exchanges. This method of calculation captures realized and unrealized capital gains, dividends, interest, trading costs, sales charges, fees, expenses and any other costs. After calculating investor returns in dollar terms, two percentages are calculated for the period examined: Total investor return rate and annualized investor return rate. Total investor return rate is determined by calculating the investor return dollars as a percentage of the net of the sales, redemptions, and exchanges for each period.

Additional Information Regarding Bloomberg Barclays Indices Source: Bloomberg Index Services Limited. BLOOMBERG® is a trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P. and its affiliates (collectively “Bloomberg”). BARCLAYS® is a trademark and service mark of Barclays Bank Plc (collectively with its affiliates, “Barclays”), used under license. Bloomberg or Bloomberg’s licensors, including Barclays, own all proprietary rights in the Bloomberg Barclays Indices. Neither Bloomberg nor Barclays approves or endorses this material, or guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information herein, or makes any warranty, express or implied, as to the results to be obtained therefrom and, to the maximum extent allowed by law, neither shall have any liability or responsibility for injury or damages arising in connection therewith.




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