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Rande Howell

The Fear of Missing Out: Getting Control of Impulse Trading

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This post is an excerpt from my book, Awaking the Mindful Trader: Mastering the Inner Game of Trading. In this series on the Eight Roadblocks to Successful Trading, we are exploring the role of fear in trading. In particular, the way your fears shape your perception and create the results of your trading.


What ever you fear, owns you. If you are acting from fear, you will always create self limitation in your trading. As long as you are mindless of your fears or believe that you can ignore your fears while trading, these very beliefs will betray you in your trading. In the example below, a trader has built a large-and-in-charge attitude to mask the face of his fear. He deceives himself (for a while), but not his trading account. Have you ever experienced the fear of missing out and traded impulsively? How much has it cost you?


The Fear of Missing Out

Getting Control of Impulse Trading


“Just a little bit more, just a little bit more – I can milk this one!” whispered Mitchell under his breath. He could feel his excitement build as the trade kept trending upward. “Move your exit point higher – this one’s a homerun,” a thought inside his mind encouraged him. And why not, this one had all the signs of a big one. Mitchell did not like letting the big one, the ones with potential beyond what his trading plan called for, to get away. Instead of taking smaller profits on any of his positions after the first ping, he decided to move his exit and let this one ride.


“Another one like this might not come along again in quite awhile,” Mitchell silently reminded himself. The trend continued and he was ready to grab all the profit that it seemed to be offering. He felt energized, his confidence grew – and that confidence began to blind him. Pushing aside his risk management rules because he did not want to miss out on this great opportunity, his trading plan parameters got pushed out of his awareness. The exhilaration of hooking and riding a big one blinded him to the down side of managing risk. In the clutches of greed, he did not notice the historical trend in this trade – it would drop like a brick suddenly. Having abandoned his stops to ride this trade, the deception in his mind caused him to fall hard. Another draw down.


Later that day, as he was reviewing his trades, Mitchell was puzzled. Stroking his chin he was chagrined. He pondered, “What happened? I know better than this. I have no idea why I behaved this way. I started out with the intention of trading my plan, and, somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked and forgot about everything I know. It’s like I fell into a trance and my evil twin started trading.” He chuckled to himself because he had no other explanation. It was confounding to him. He was smart enough, skilled enough, and confident enough to trade well. But there he was, getting into trades that were not the right set ups and then his good sense disappeared like dust in the wind.


What Happened to Reason?


The fear of missing out urges you to push aside risk management tools that keep a trade within acceptable low risk parameters. The temptation is real. Instead of hitting a safe single or double on a trade, the allure of hitting a homerun or hitting the jack pot (with just a little luck) sweeps good sense off the psychological playing field and leaves the enticement of greed whispering in your ear. Real time temptation. Why not swing for the fences? It feels great when you take all the money on the table. And you get to feel powerful. You get to feel like the hero in a movie.


Occasionally when you move your stops and exits, you do win. You also move your trading into the arena of gambling – not risk management. Actuarially a casino knows the odds much better than the gambler – and they are sticking to their trading plan for the gambler. On a few occasions the gambler does win and experiences the thrill of winning the jackpot like a drug. Then he is hooked, much like our friend Mitchell is in the vignette above. What the casino knows is that the gambler will ride his euphoria and never see that the odds are stacked against him. He, like the trader, becomes entranced by the chance of hitting it big. As the greed kicks in, it takes over reason. Once under the ether, the trader becomes mindless and sees only through the eyes of greed. This is what happened to Mitchell. And he wins some – at least on paper. He starts out with the intention of trading to plan. But he is seduced by the allure of greed. Soon, any semblance of an impartial, disciplined state of mind is eroded. Gambler and trader have already lost at this point. Psychological management is really this important.


Ultimately he gives back his earnings (and then some) to the house. The casino is playing by the rules of risk management while the gambler sacrifices his sensibility to greed – the house wins consistently and the gambler, though he has a couple of great thrills, loses consistently.


Trading in a market can be done from a position of impartial and disciplined risk management (which is what the house is doing) and a trader can win consistently. Or a trader can be sucked in by his fear of missing out of big money and get corrupted by his greed – which is what the gambler does. The only difference is that the casino wins consistently and predictably over time, while the gambler wins sometimes (in the short term). But he gives back his gains and loses capital over time.


Greed and fear of missing out, from an evolutionary survival perspective, is a very useful emotion. It pushed our ancestors to consume more than they needed NOW so that they would have the resources to survive in leaner times. Acquiring food on a regular basis could not be depended on. Nor was there an assurance of other supplies needed to survive. So, over countless generations, the capacity for greed was bred into the human genome.


At some moment in our biological history, humans developed a psychological self – and this is where greed and fear of missing out got disconnected from their biological roots. Suddenly humans were not only putting on fat for the winter and putting away supplies for leaner times (survival motivations), they were putting away money for a rainy day. Eventually the power to survive and prevail became associated with money. By accumulating money we find external validation for our sense of power, our mattering, our importance, and for our power


In trading, if this fear is not recognized and managed, it will blow up your trades and trading account. You have to build the psychological strength and discipline to resist it. In the case presented above, Mitchell does go on to develop the internal strengths to resist the temptations of striking it rich quickly and the euphoric rush that takes over the mind of a trader sucked into a mindset controlled by greed. He had to work on it and re-organize the way he understood success to accomplish this victory. By doing so, he actually achieved the success in the longer term that his greed promised in the short term. This is a classic internal war where a biologically based emotion outlives its usefulness when it takes over psychologically the state of mind of the trader.


Untethering Your Sense of Identity from Your Historical Dialog


What you are afraid of, owns you. Your fears cloud your thinking and color your perception of circumstance. No where is this more important than in trading. Your historical internal dialog (all those thoughts running around in your head) exposes these very fears – the fears that limit your capacity to trade at a higher level.


Go back to the vignette with Mitchell and see if you can spot his internal dialog. It is easy to see how his thinking, so dominated by his greed, set him up for failure. This kind of thinking is not a given. It was his mindlessness of his internal dialog that blinded him to its impact on his trading. This was far more than idle chatter or internal noise in his mind – it was a set up for failure. Without discipline and knowledge of these unseen forces at work in his mind, he is led to slaughter. It is his lack of awareness of the power of the internal dialog that set him up.


Unlike your capacity to hide from your insecurities in most of the other domains of your life, trading cuts to the very core of your being – there is no place to hide. Trading exposes the internal dialog that comes forth from your fears. Becoming Mindful of your internal dialog during trading will show you the very fears that you must conquer to become a consistently profitable trader.


When you are able to separate your thoughts from your sense of identity, becoming an observer to your interior conversations takes on a different nature. You move from avoiding acknowledging the existence of hidden parts of yourself to becoming a detective solving the mystery of your capacity to trade. You become the author of the story of trading in which you are a participant. And you realize that the character who has been trading is flawed, and you (and only you) are going to have to redevelop the character as a peak performance trader.


In developing the capacity to slow the body and mind down so that you can become mindful of the composition of your Internal Dialog, you learn to use the internal dialog to become aware of what you have been hiding from yourself. It is through this practice of mindful introspection that you develop yourself as a trader. You will discover that there is far more to develop within your mind that you ever expected. The tiny discomfort you experience when you begin to be honest with yourself and confronting self limiting beliefs gives way to something new.


That something new is the re-invention of the self. There is so much empowerment to be discovered and developed. The historical dialog has blinded you to possibility. Now, with the blinders of fear removed, you are now going to explore how to bring forth the empowered self in your trading. In the next chapter you will be exploring instinctual potentials living within you that have been held hostage by your fears. Now you will learn how to name these elements of self that will empower you to zone into peak performance trading.


Rande Howell

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