Sunday, May 02, 2010

Core Ideas in Trading Psychology: Implicit Learning and Somatic Markers

Perhaps the most common psychological change that traders need to make is the ability to quiet their minds and focus their concentration. Many of the problems described by traders, from emotional frustration to negative self-talk, distract traders from their best trading practices and plans.

One of my earliest observations as a psychologist working with traders was how common it was for experienced traders to go through periods in which they traded like rookies. How could that be?

The literature review that I conducted to write the Trading Performance book led me to an interesting conclusion: the skills that are central to trading involve frequent exposure to subtle patterns in the shift of supply and demand. Over time, these patterns are internalized, so that experienced traders develop a "feel" for markets. This is known as implicit learning (see the Performance book for a full description): the trader recognizes the pattern, but cannot necessarily verbalize it.

There are many patterns in life that we sense, but cannot fully place into words. My favorite example is the young child who creates grammatical sentences when she talks, but cannot tell you the rules of grammar she is using. Similarly, I can sense clearly when a person is talking in a very sincere or insincere manner, but cannot necessarily tell you all the subtle cues--the changes in vocal inflection, the nuances of facial expression--that lead me to that conclusion. As for the experienced trader, for the seasoned psychologist, it's a gut thing: the result of thousands of exposures to patterns that recur, but rarely the same way twice.

Once the concentration of the psychologist or trader is broken, the access to those subtle gut hunches is lost. In that situation, the experienced professional loses contact with years of experience and, indeed, becomes a rookie. Caught in frustration, worries about profitability, or distracted by family turmoil, the trader is no longer attentive to somatic markers, the felt cues that tell us that a pattern is present.

This is why, in the Trading Coach book, I highlighted exposure methods as particularly promising for traders. Those methods train us to stay calm and focused, even as we are mentally rehearsing (or actually undergoing) stressful situations that typically trigger our problem patterns. It isn't that we need to remove emotion from trading--our feelings provide our best somatic markers. Rather, we need to ensure that self-relevant emotional turmoil does not overwhelm the intuitions that are present when we are focused on markets.

All this having been said, I would estimate that 80+% of traders fail because they have never developed implicit learning in the first place--not because their gut hunches are swamped by distracting thoughts and feelings. Trading is indeed a performance activity and it takes many concentrated months of exposure to patterns to make them our own. Placing money at risk before cultivating that implicit learning is no different from entering a battlefield without military training. You'll be so busy looking for setups that you'll never realize that you're the one being set up.

For more on the topic of implicit learning, check out the posts on Implicit Learning and the Unattached Mind, Implicit Learning and Single-Trial Learning, Building Market Intuition, Intuition and Trading Decisions, and Somatic Markers and Trading. Cognitive and behavioral exercises to aid trading performance can be found in the Trader Performance book, along with a detailed account of implicit learning.