A Skinner box is a device used to study animal behavior. Its more formal name is “operant conditioning chamber.” It was originally devised by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner used his box to study how animals respond to positive or negative stimuli. For example, a rat can be conditioned to push a lever for a bit of food. A dog can be conditioned to salivate whenever a bell rings.
Lest you be inclined to dismiss operant conditioning as silly games played with animals, it’s worth considering that slot machines, video games and social media all make use of operant conditioning to shape our behavior.
The financial markets, too, are a kind of Skinner box.
Do you suppose we believe what we believe about investing because there are immutable laws, similar to physical laws, that govern the price action in markets?
We believe what we believe about investing because we’ve been conditioned to believe it. Much of what we think we “know” about investing is simply rationalized, conditioned behavior (the endless and pointless debate over “lump sum versus dollar cost averaging” is a perfect example–the “answer” is entirely path dependent). We investors aren’t so different from Skinner’s rats, working their little levers for their food pellets. It’s just that we’re after returns instead of snacks.
Below is what an operant schedule of reinforcement looks like.
Bet on Market Factor -> REWARD (GOOD RETURNS, CLIENTS HIRE YOU)
Bet on Momentum Factor -> SMALL REWARD (MAYBE)
Bet on Value, Size, Quality -> PUNISHMENT (BAD RETURNS, CLIENTS FIRE YOU)
The “lesson” here is very clear:
BETA IS ALL THAT MATTERS
BETA IS ALL THAT WORKS
This is what public market investors are being conditioned to believe. And if flows away from active management (particularly low beta strategies) are any indication, the market Skinner box is doing an admirable job. Demand for investment strategies is all operant conditioning, all the time.
Of course, the markets are more complicated than Skinner’s box. Market price action is both the input and output of investor behavior. It’s more like a Skinner box where the collective actions of the rats influence the operant schedule of reinforcement (this is another way of thinking about the concept of reflexivity).
The idea of markets-as-Skinner-boxes is inextricably linked to the idea of market regimes: patterns of correlations for economic variables such as interest rates, economic growth and inflation. It’s also inextricably linked to the idea of the zeitgeist: “the spirit of the age.” The relationship between these processes doesn’t flow so much as interlock. Each process acts on the others.
This visualization isn’t ideal. It implies the interactions are mechanical in nature, and that the result is a straightforward, predictable system. It’s not. In reality it’s much more an interaction of planetary bodies and gravitational fields than clockwork mechanisms of wheels and gears. My friends Ben and Rusty describe this as the three body problem. But imperfect as the above visual may be, it gives you a rough idea of how all this interrelates.