Icons and Thinking

Life is complicated so we make up simple structures to make the complexity manageable.  We all have icons that express the essence of some deeper meaning.  Be careful.  Consider the Buddha’s idea,

“I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

If we think of our life-simplifying assumptions, then we must periodically review them for validity.  If not, they become the finger and the moon remains invisible.  We have many forms of life simplifying icons:

  1. Bias
  2. Prejudice
  3. Experience
  4. Culture
  5. Habit
  6. Brands
  7. Rules

All replace complicated ideas with automatic response.

The danger is that we forget that these icons are merely symbols.  When they were created, they were a simple expression of a complicated reality and they helped us to process situations more quickly.  Unless we are careful, our perception of them will not change even if reality becomes different.  Old roles of thumb and heuristics remain paramount.

Some examples of less than always true ideas:

  1. Real estate always goes up in value
  2. Dividends are better to earn than interest
  3. You cannot go wrong buying bank stock
  4. A diversified portfolio will work best for you.
  5. Cash value life insurance is a bad deal
  6. You can’t fight city hall
  7. You can’t beat the market
  8. Death and Taxes are inevitable

Not all are always and exactly true. Other unexamined beliefs can harm us too.

  1. People in other parts of the world believe the same things we do.  Sometimes only a few miles away is different.
  2. Body language is the same everywhere
  3. Banks are all strong.

Be careful of the things you believe to be intuitively true.  I once had a client who was preparing to ship $2,000,000 (about $6 million today’s money) worth of product to a customer in Bolivia.  He had a $2,000,000 letter of credit to support the shipment.  I asked him to have his bank check out the issuing bank in Bolivia.  To his chagrin, he found the bank was owned by the customer and it had assets of  $40,000.  Canadians especially believe all banks are strong.  Not so true elsewhere.

It is not easy to keep up to date with everything that is intuitive.  You can do it if you pay attention and associate with people who are different than you are.  Younger, older, another gender, from another place, wealthier, or poorer.  Challenge your intuition.  Change your intuition.  Amend your icons.

As Thomas Kida’s book is titled, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”

Contact: don@moneyfyi.com  

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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