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Unraveling the Psychology Behind Market Chaos

Welcome to this holiday weekend edition of the Morning Pour.

Today, we are visiting the whimsical world of Mr. Market. (1) Think of him as the stock market's very own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all rolled into one charismatic yet unpredictable character.

Benjamin Graham, recognized as the father of value investing, introduced this fascinating metaphor in his iconic book "The Intelligent Investor." "Mr. Market" personifies an investor’s generally erratic behavior regarding stock market investing. His emotional and unpredictable nature of market movements is key to understanding investor psychology and helping your clients navigate the fluctuations of financial markets.

Santa Claus Brings You Kahneman, Tversky, and Graham's Antics 

But this Morning Pour is not stopping with Benjamin Graham and Mr. Market. We will team him with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, renowned behavioral economist, and their 1979 paper, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk.” (2), which revolutionized our understanding of decision-making and laid the foundation for behavioral economics.

This paper was cited in the decision to award Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. (3) Combining both will enhance our understanding of our clients’ behavior and how to take advantage of Mr. Market's erratic behavior.

So, grab your coffee or tea as we explore the behavioral research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and Prospect Theory but see it through the exploits of Benjamin Graham’s Mr. Market to gain some interesting insights into clients as we try to help them navigate the turbulent tides of financial markets.

Who is Mr. Market?

Graham created Mr. Market as a fictional character to illustrate the erratic nature of the stock market. He described Mr. Market as a business partner who offers to buy or sell stocks daily at various prices. Sometimes Mr. Market is exuberant and buys stocks at high prices, representing optimism, while at other times, he is despondent and sells the same stock at low prices, representing pessimism.

Mr. Market is portrayed as highly emotional and subject to frequent mood swings. His emotions dictate the prices he quotes for stocks, which can vary daily or even hour to hour. This emotional volatility is detached from the underlying value of the stocks or the companies they represent.

Graham's key insight into Mr. Market is that while his buying and selling may be irrational and influenced by emotion, investors need not react similarly.

Instead, investors should view Mr. Market's offers as opportunities to buy or sell stocks based on their intrinsic value analysis. Graham advises investors to capitalize on Mr. Market's irrationality by buying when he's pessimistic, offering low prices, and selling when he's optimistic, offering high prices.

Let’s Throw in Warren Buffett Too

This coincides with Warren Buffett's famed mantra: "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful."

The wisdom in Warren Buffett's "Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful" is that it challenges conventional market behavior. When he says to “be fearful when others are greedy," he implies caution when stocks and Mr. Market are exhibiting what Alan Greenspan once called “Irrational Exuberance.”

Mr. Market, at this stage of the market cycle, may buy stocks and face the potential risk of inflated stock prices driven by euphoria rather than underlying value.

Warren Buffett's advice is to "be greedy when others are fearful," highlighting the potential opportunities that arise during market downturns.

When fear dominates the market, Mr. Market typically sells stock, and prices generally plummet, often leading to undervalued assets. This is when Warren Buffett suggests buying equities from Mr. Market as his fear persists at historically lower prices.

By exploring Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky's work, let us see if we can understand why Mr. Market acts as he does and, more importantly, the opportunities Mr. Market may bring to your clients. For today, we are going to highlight two aspects of their work:

  1. Asymmetric evaluation
  2. Reference dependence

Asymmetric Evaluation: How Your Clients View Gains and Losses Differently

Asymmetric evaluation, a cornerstone of Prospect Theory, shows us how individuals perceive gains and losses differently. It shows us that losses have a more profound psychological impact on our clients than equivalent gains.

They call this concept loss aversion.

This bias may lead clients to react more strongly to potential losses, feeling the pain of losing $100 more than the joy derived from gaining the same $100.

Graham created Mr. Market to personify market volatility. His mood swings between exuberance and despair and offers a real-world portrayal of asymmetric evaluation.

Mr. Market's behavior aligns with the loss aversion principle during his despondent phases. He offers stocks at significantly reduced prices, driven by an acute aversion to potential losses. This reflects his emotional response to avoid the distress of perceiving losses, a fundamental aspect of asymmetric evaluation.

Mr. Market's exaggerated reactions to potential losses can influence your clients’ sentiment. Observing his pessimism, they might echo similar emotions, fearing further losses and thus becoming inclined to sell their stocks, even if the fundamental value remains intact.

In essence, Mr. Market's temperament aligns strikingly with the psychological bias of loss aversion within asymmetric evaluation. Understanding how he reacts to potential losses offers you, as a financial advisor, a lens into the emotional complexities driving market dynamics and a strategic approach to capitalize on these emotional swings.

As a financial advisor, using Mr. Market as a guiding analogy, you can leverage the psychological insights from asymmetric evaluation, particularly the concept of loss aversion, to navigate market volatility and client sentiment.

Just as individuals feel the pain of losing $100 more intensely than the joy derived from gaining the same amount, Mr. Market's mood swings mirror this bias.

When Mr. Market is despondent, offering stocks at reduced prices due to his aversion to potential losses reflects the psychological response inherent in asymmetric evaluation. This behavior can influence your client's sentiment, potentially prompting them to react emotionally, fearing further losses and considering selling stocks even when their fundamental value remains sound.

Benjamin Graham advises you not to succumb to Mr. Market's emotional pendulum. Instead, you can use these emotional fluctuations to your client’s advantage. When Mr. Market's pessimism drives prices below intrinsic values, it presents an opportune moment for wise investors to acquire undervalued stocks.

When Mr. Market shows irrational exuberance, that might be the time to sell him your stocks at that higher price.

You might call it “buy fear and sell greed.”

Reference Dependence: Your Clients May Evaluate Your Recommendations on a Relative Basis

Reference dependence refers to the idea that individuals evaluate outcomes not in absolute terms but relative to a reference point. Past experiences, societal norms, or recent events can influence the reference point, shaping how gains and losses are perceived.

To illustrate this, imagine someone offers you two choices:

  1. Receiving $500 guaranteed, or
  2. A coin toss where you might win $1,000 or win nothing. There is a 50% chance of each outcome.

Both options seem to be worth $500 on average. The math behind option B is (0.5 * $1,000) + (0.5 * $0) = $500. When making decisions, your perception of choices can be influenced by where you begin, mentally or emotionally.

In the context of the example with the guaranteed $500 and the coin toss, your client’s "starting point" is their current situation, whether it is a recent gain, a certain amount of money, or any reference that affects how they view the choices.

Viewing the guaranteed $500 as the Starting Point, if they see the guaranteed $500 as a baseline or a sure thing, they might perceive the coin toss as a risky choice because it involves uncertainty. In this scenario, the safety of the guaranteed money is their mental starting point, making the risk of the coin toss less appealing.

Their mental starting point shifts if they recently gained more than $500.

Suddenly, the guaranteed $500 might seem less attractive than the possibility of winning $1,000 in the coin toss. Their newfound reference point influences their perception, making the higher potential gain of the coin toss more appealing.

Mr. Market's behavior aligns with reference dependence. When he is hopeful, recent market highs become his starting point. He might overestimate the value of stocks, thinking they are worth more than they truly are. This is why, for many investors, when markets are hitting new highs, it seems as if they will be high forever and continue to invest in stocks at what might be inflated prices.

Conversely, during pessimistic times, recent market lows become his starting point, leading him to undervalue stocks and sell them at a lower price. This reference dependence is why, for some investors, it feels like the market will be down forever when markets hit lows. And they do not invest despite how cheap stocks are.

Clients observing Mr. Market might make decisions based on his reference-dependent valuations. When he is optimistic, they might buy stocks influenced by the recent market highs. But during his pessimistic phases, they might hesitate to invest and sell their stocks, affected by recent market downturns.

Understanding how Mr. Market's valuations fluctuate with reference dependence can help your clients identify opportunities when Mr. Market's valuations do not match a stock's true value.

Closing Thoughts

Mr. Market, conceptualized by Benjamin Graham, embodies asymmetric evaluation and reference dependence as two fundamental principles within Prospect Theory.

His erratic behavior mirrors the client’s tendency to assess gains and losses asymmetrically, with losses having a more profound psychological impact than equivalent gains, a concept known as loss aversion.

This translates into Mr. Market's exaggerated reactions to negative news, displaying a marked aversion to potential losses. Moreover, his valuations sway not solely on intrinsic values but are influenced by recent trends or news, aligning with reference dependence.

Understanding this may help you create an investment strategy that seeks to buy stocks when Mr. Market is fearful, selling his stocks below their intrinsic value and then selling the same basket of stocks to Mr. Market as he becomes exuberant and pays more than what the value of the stocks might be.

Asymmetric evaluation and reference dependence may provide a window of the opportunities that Mr. Market potentially brings.


  1. “Mr. Market – Benjamin Graham’s Famous Value Investing Allegory,” by Joshua Kennon, n/d.

  2. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk," by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, March 1979

  3. “Prospect Theory,” by Wikipedia, n/d,,Nobel%20Memorial%20Prize%20in%20Economics


This communication is general in nature and provided for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be considered or relied upon as legal, tax, or investment advice or an investment recommendation, or as a substitute for legal counsel. Any investment products or services named herein are for illustrative purposes only and should not be considered an offer to buy or sell, or an investment recommendation for, any specific security, strategy, or investment product or service. Always consult a qualified professional or your own independent financial professional for personalized advice or investment recommendations tailored to your specific goals, individual situation, and risk tolerance.