Archives for September 20, 2016

Secret Eaters: Fighting Your Unconscious and Semi-Consicous Choices

In my last Buffett post, I talked about the importance of tracking performance carefully when trading your own portfolios. Most casual traders “think” they are doing fine, but if you ask them their rate of return for the last year compared to a benchmark, they won’t be able to tell you. They may have a rough idea, something like “last year was bad but this year I did a lot better”. Alternatively, they may point out that they gained a lot on Apple but lost a lot on Valeant.

This reminded me of a British TV show called Secret Eaters. Along the same lines, most people “think” they eat relatively healthy. They remember the time they turned down that bacon cheeseburger and had a nice salad instead. Participants in this show had their eating habits quietly tracked by private investigators, hidden cameras, or by digging through their trash. Many were surprised to find that they ate an additional 1,000+ calories a day in snacks, desserts, and oversized portions. Here’s a sample episode (the intro shows you the general show structure):

Now, this is a TV show and thus more about entertainment than proper nutritional science, but the point remains that the people profiled did a lot of semi-conscious eating. After being presented with the hard evidence, they were quite surprised. Here’s a Mirror article that follows up on some of the participants and how they started tracking their diet more carefully using things like smartphone apps. In addition to better tracking, another tip is to change your environment. In my opinion, watching TV is the great enabler of mindless eating. I try to avoid eating in front of the TV or computer whenever possible.

The same fuzzy tracking is what gets us into trouble with spending. You get the credit card bill, and all these little charges here and there added up to an extra 500 dollars. To counteract this, you could use one of the many budgeting apps now available. Changing your environment also applies: unsubscribe from some daily deal e-mails, pre-plan your weekly meals, and only visit a shopping website when you have something specific to buy (no browsing).

If you consistently make poor eating decisions, your body will probably tell you. If you consistently make bad spending decisions, your bank statement will probably tell you. But unconsciously bad choices in investing are especially sneaky because you may never know how much potential money you lost on high fees or badly-timed trades.