High Stakes Learning: why figuring out your investments is so hard


Last week we kicked off the Women & Finance series with a "Stocks & Sushi" stock trading game night in Cambridge. As you might have guessed, the emphasis was on having a good time. Our 15th Floor event room above Kendall Square gave us panoramic views across to Boston, and trays of sushi, cakes and a case of wine meant no one was feeling particularly stressed out about learning anything. But the learning—along with a healthy dose of competition (and a little buttercream frosting)—happened all the same.

Since Thursday, I've had a slew of comments and emails from attendees about how much better they understand their own investments since participating in the game. The game itself is a version of something I used to do with an auditorium full of undergrads when I taught the origins of the modern stock exchange. You can't, in my opinion, really understand how and why stock prices fluctuate (and how bonds work at all!) until you are in the middle of the psychological cauldron that is a marketplace. When the dice send the market into a meteoric rise, you can actually feel the tempting pull of the next big bet or the cautionary tug of anxiety, even though those make-believe shares of "Doctor & Gamble" in your hand are, literally, not worth the paper they are printed on.

So why, if this all quickly becomes clear in the game, do the real investments in our 401k account remain so murky to us? I think the answer has something to do with the stakes of the game.

I once had a conversation with a client about why her teenage daughter seems to magically understand all the bizarre features on her smart phone while my client still struggles with turning the camera on and off. "Think about when you use the phone," I said, "you've got a grocery bag in one hand, your half-drunk coffee in the other and you realize you have to make a quick work call in the two minutes before a meeting starts." On the other hand, her teen is using her phone while waiting in the car with a bag of chips and her feet on the dash. While my adult client has precisely three seconds to get the phone to do exactly what she needs before everything starts to come unglued, her teen can play with every button, slide and touch without worrying about it. She's literally just playing around (and she's not paying for that phone). We don't say this often, but the teenager with the smart phone is in a much better state for learning.

If you really want to learn something, it has to be ok to try stuff out, to take risks, to push random buttons and see what happens. But unless someone's already covering retirement for you (wouldn't that be lovely), you aren't going to feel that relaxed about your actual investments. Which means we need to find ways to make learning about finances a more playful experience. It can be events like stock trading night (no one cried or lost their homes when American Textiles went bankrupt following an embezzlement scandal). Or we could be using all of those apps and game software to make the foundations of our financial system accessible to anyone who wants to understand them. And sometimes the answer is just in the way we present investment choices to people. Frankly, those of us in the financial industry—from actual financial advisors to the agents and brokers handling most of the country's retirement plans—have kept the tension high and the chance for learning pretty low. We are going to need to do better.

In the meantime, we will get going on another Stocks & Sushi night. I'm feeling like "Donut Barn" has some real earnings potential.