Like most of us, I’m anxiously waiting for life to return to normal. For me, that means getting back on an airplane so that I can coach and present to advisors in person. Despite the effectiveness of virtual meetings, there’s something powerful about live engagements. I’m looking forward to talking to living, breathing human beings instead of a group of thumbnails on my computer screen.
In the past, I’ve taken more than 150 flights a year, sometimes with two or three legs a day. I’ve learned a lot about commercial aviation from conversations with pilots from one airport to another. It’s comforting to know that the aviation industry takes passenger safety very seriously. In fact, from 2010 to 2016, there were no crashes of US airlines that resulted in a fatality. Sure, there are occasional accidents, but the possibility that I will be injured in an aircraft is one in many millions.
I know these statistics aren’t comforting if you’re a nervous flier. The primitive part of your brain interrupts your logical thoughts, stimulates irrational fears and creates disturbing mental images when you feel turbulence.
The Power of Human Error
If we look more closely at the statistics, we find that about 80% of those rare aviation accidents are caused by human error, most often a mistake made by a pilot. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Risk Management Handbook, “...the successful pilot possesses the ability to concentrate, manage workloads, monitor, and perform several simultaneous tasks.” If not, disaster can occur.
A famous example is the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 in December 1972. As they were landing, a faulty landing gear light caused the pilot, the copilot and the flight engineer to concentrate on the indicator. The crew thought that the autopilot control was keeping them at a safe altitude while they focused intensely on solving the problem. Instead, the plane flew into the ground as the crew fixated on something that turned out not to be a problem after all.
What Does This Have to Do with Being a Financial Advisor?
The accident is a testament to the powerful way in which the human brain makes subtle processing mistakes that can have enormous consequences. The mental-processing error that caused the crash is known as narrow framing. Insights from behavioral finance have revealed that narrow framing is one of the most common and dangerous heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that are hardwired into the human brain.
Our brains evolved with heuristics designed to help people survive in a hostile ecology. It’s sensible for the brain to focus intensely on a dangerous animal or a strange human with a weapon and to edit everything else out of awareness until the danger has passed.
Behavioral finance researchers Daniel Kahneman and Dan Lovallo describe this heuristic as a way in which “people tend to consider decision problems one at a time, often isolating the current problem from other choices that may be pending.”1 This pattern is built in to our brains: when faced with a complicated problem or a threat, the brain prefers to zoom in, edit most of the information in the current situation out of awareness and focus intensely on one thing.
Operating an airplane is complicated and dangerous, which is why it requires two pilots. If a glitch occurs, the senior pilot immediately decides who will fly the plane and who will solve the problem. This allows each pilot to concentrate on his or her task. This should sound familiar because advising people about important financial decisions is also complicated and dangerous. Bad things can happen and people can be hurt if an advisor makes poor decisions or neglects to take action. Remember that just because you don’t know that something can hurt you doesn’t mean you’re safe.
Who Is Your Copilot?
In financial services, narrow framing is a chronic and serious problem. Many clients and their advisors narrow-frame their attention on a specific investment or the price associated with a product. Advisors often focus solely on building and managing investment portfolios and exclude dozens of other wealth-management decisions that will impact their clients.
Think of how many times clients arrive at your office with one oversimplified question: “What are your fees?” This is powerful evidence that they’re editing out of awareness most of the important issues that need to be addressed in their financial plan. Here’s a great response: “I’m committed to charging you the lowest fee based on the services and advice that you actually need. Let’s explore your situation and what you need from me, and then we can determine how much it will cost.”
Recognize that clients aren’t the only people who use narrow framing. Advisors often narrow-frame their choices when coping with complexity. Just as a pilot relies on a copilot to ensure that all of the complexities of flying an airplane are being addressed, an advisor benefits from having a defined Standard of Care and wealth-management checklists to ensure that nothing is missing from a financial plan that could hurt a client or that the client should be taking advantage of.
For more information on wealth-management checklists and for guidance on designing a more robust Standard of Care for your practice, ask your AllianceBernstein wholesaler for the relevant materials from the AB Advisor Institute.
For more resources from the AB Advisor Institute visit http://alliancebernstein.com/go/abai.
1Daniel Kahneman and Dan Lovallo, “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive Perspective on Risk Taking,” Management Science vol. 39, no. 1 (January 1993): 17–31
The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.