Practical analysis for investment professionals
24 September 2014

The Intuitive Investor: Non-Attachment Is the Key Intuition Skill

In my last column I promised to share how to bring intuition more into your conscious awareness and how to translate it into something useful. Recall that in “The Intuitive Investor: A Simple Model of Intuition,” I said intuition is sensory stimulus followed by interpretation. I also said that if intuition fails an investor, it is usually because of poor awareness and poor interpretation, which are admittedly hard to overcome.

It is my belief that awareness of intuition is made difficult by the many intellect- and emotion-based biases introduced in the interpretation phase. This is largely due to a lack of cultural appreciation for intuition and consequently a lack of structure and resources to help you improve. For most, intuition remains serendipitous rather than a tool. So before I can share some of the skills needed to increase awareness of intuition, we need to focus on the interpretation part of the equation since it is the primary obstacle. To that end:

The key intuition skill is non-attachment.

What Is Non-Attachment?

Non-attachment is another way of saying “having a minimum of bias.” Non-attachment also means you are indifferent to the sensations provided by your intuition. Attachment to your intuitive sensations, by comparison, means that you care very much about your sensory experience. An example is “I always trust my gut,” or “I never trust my gut.” This is attachment because the words “always” and “never” are judgments made in advance of your sensation. Ideally you experience your intuition without preferring an outcome, such as: “I need some sort of insight about whether to buy this stock or not considering that my model does not provide a definitive answer.”

When Does Attachment Happen Most?

Attachment arises much more frequently in the interpretation phase of intuition. This is because interpretation requires a judgment and it is very difficult not to invoke mental models or be blinded by behavioral biases. Non-attachment is also not detachment, with which it is frequently confused. This is because, similar to attachment, detachment is an active mindset, whereas non-attachment is neither active nor passive — it is simply the observation of what is happening.

An unfortunate case of attachment from early in my career was buying an initial position of shares in a company (International Rectifier: $IRF) because I had recently been promoted to portfolio manager and wanted to have an immediate effect on the returns of the fund I managed. This ran counter to my intuition, which indicated that the market’s skepticism for the company was appropriate. My poor choice occurred because I was predisposed to buy shares independent of my intuition in order to fulfill a biased mandate. Put another way, if there is attachment you can torture your financial models to generate any outcome you desire.

How to Overcome Attachment

To succeed as an investor your conscious awareness must be as in accord with reality as possible. Any distortions added by mental models, prejudices, preferences, memories, and emotions corrupt the purity of the initial signal. Non-attachment means awareness of reality’s pure signal without immediately jumping to conclusions. To be clear, mental models are not discarded. Instead, in practicing non-attachment you recognize that your intuition is primary and shapes your choice of mental model, rather than conforming your intuition to a preferred mental model.

An example may help to illustrate non-attachment in action. Can you be indifferent about the music on the radio as you commute to work? After all, music is just sound waves transmitted through a medium that are received by your ear, converted from acoustic energy to electricity, and then passed on to your mind. At that point you are free to listen or to interpret what you are hearing as the music has an independent and objective reality separate from your preferences. Most people prefer only certain types to the exclusion of others. That is, their preference interferes with the pure signals provided by the music itself.

As an exercise in non-attachment, try listening to music you normally would not listen to and see if you are able to just experience it without judgment. Pay close attention to the emotions that arise while listening to the music. Are you mapping the music you do not like to models or archetypes, such as: “loud music is for dumb people”? It is okay to have general preferences, but the point is to begin recognizing the distinction between objective signals and our filtering of those signals with our prejudices and preferences.

Here are other non-attachment examples specific to the investment business: if you lost money and shed lots of alpha with an investment in a waste company last year, are you able to listen to a new waste company pitch objectively? What about being overweight in commodities for the last five years with great success, are you able to sell now? Or are you still attached to your winning position? Say you are at an industry conference and hear an executive pitch her company for the third time in the last 18 months. Do you experience the presentation objectively and as a unique moment? Or does it sound exactly the same?

Each of these are examples of experiences in which attachment is likely to be triggered. Consequently, these moments are rich in lessons on how to notice attachment and learn how to sense it when it fires into operation. As an exercise in practicing investing wisdom — and not just intelligence — after you begin noticing your attachments, see if you are able to interrupt the blind, reflexive firing of prejudices, preferences, mental models, and so forth. Each time you can track your mind at work increases your ability to learn non-attachment. This alone will help your intuition to improve.

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Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.

Photo credit: ©iStockphoto.com/retrorocket

About the Author(s)
Jason Voss, CFA

Jason Voss, CFA, tirelessly focuses on improving the ability of investors to better serve end clients. He is the author of the Foreword Reviews Business Book of the Year Finalist, The Intuitive Investor and the CEO of Active Investment Management (AIM) Consulting. Previously, he was a portfolio manager at Davis Selected Advisers, L.P., where he co-managed the Davis Appreciation and Income Fund to noteworthy returns. Voss holds a BA in economics and an MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Colorado.

Ethics Statement

My statement of ethics is very simple, really: I treat others as I would like to be treated. In my opinion, all systems of ethics distill to this simple statement. If you believe I have deviated from this standard, I would love to hear from you: jason@jasonapollovoss.com

20 thoughts on “The Intuitive Investor: Non-Attachment Is the Key Intuition Skill”

  1. Ahmed Al Busaid says:

    Well done, this article is sheer brilliance. Always love reading articles from you.
    You addressed a very important topic that is rarely discussed and added to it.

    1. Hello Ahmed,

      I really appreciate the feedback and thank you for your praise!

      With smiles,

      Jason

  2. shrivathsan says:

    Extra-ordinary! Not all investors may have technical knowledge but virtually everyone can have intuition. Channelising it in proper way in the field of investment will always reap rewards but its easier said than done.

    You tried to answer why it is difficult and I cant agree more with you. Good work. More research needed in this area.

    1. Hello Shrivathsan,

      Thank you! What kind words!

      With smiles,

      Jason

  3. Savio Cardozo says:

    Hello Jason
    As in the earlier series you have excelled at using examples that are easy to understand.
    For instance I always listen to classical music when I am alone in the car.
    When my wife is with me she turns on 80’s music.
    As you pointed out, my immediate reaction is to think “gosh, that music is only noise without harmonious melodies”.
    The next time I will, as you suggest, receive the music without preconceived biases that have prevented me from enjoying it, and perhaps try to understand why she likes it and I do not.
    Since I firmly believe in not using human intervention in investing I remain unaffected in this area by my natural preferences and dislikes. But I am sure if I relied on my personal judgement I would let my personal favourites and those I think are dogs dominate my decisions.
    Thanks again for an excellent article.
    Have a nice weekend
    Savio

    1. Hi Savio,

      I fear that I have failed you for if you do as you describe you will be engaging in some more attachment (!). Try listening to your wife’s 80’s music and just notice the aural sensations. If you “[try] enjoying it, and [endeavor] to understand why she likes it” then you are still attached to an outcome and listening with preference. Non-attachment demands we interrupt the (for most of us) adamantine link between stimulus and our chosen response. For most people these two separate things are one thing – as you highlight: “gosh, that music is only noise without harmonious melodies” – your normal response.

      Instead you just want to notice the sensations without evaluation. Does this make sense? I admit this is difficult work…but it is also most rewarding! For once you can separate stimulus from response then you can hope to choose your interpretation, rather than be subject to preconceptions like preference, prejudice, and mental models. This, in turn, means you can hope to better understand reality as it is, rather than how you prefer it to be.

      Hope the weekend is good for you (my preference and hence, attachment!)!,

      Jason

      1. Savio Cardozo says:

        Hello Jason
        Thank you for taking the time to respond.
        After reading your article once again and your response to my comments, I realize that I was reading and quickly forming conclusions, instead of as you say reading (or listening) without evaluation, or more elegantly, separating stimulus from response.
        Yes, that is going to be difficult – it will require undoing years of my way of thinking but it will certainly be an interesting, mentally challenging exercise – will let you know how I make out.
        Thanks again for patiently setting me out on the right path.
        Have a nice weekend – the weather is awesome in Toronto
        Savio

        1. Hello Savio,

          You are welcome…I am so happy to help!

          Big smiles,

          Jason

  4. David Tan, CFA says:

    Hi Jason,
    I’m just reading your articles for the first time. Came across your work in the latest CFA Selections.
    You must be practising yoga. What you are writing about sounds very much like what I am trying to achieve through my yoga practice and my investment process.
    Good stuff!
    Namaste

    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for reaching out and sharing the experience of your yoga and investment practice. I am not a yoga practitioner, though I have taken yoga workshops and gone to maybe half a dozen or so classes over the years. It is true that many of the things I write about find a home in a yoga studio, though! So glad that you are liking these pieces.

      Yours, in service,

      Jason

  5. Jimmy says:

    Hello Jason,

    As usual, an interesting article (and a follow-up of the previous one). In this one, you don’t really shake up the textbook definition of intuition but simply promote it to a level where spontaneous thinking is free of biases (or I would rather say has less bias). This would take sustained effort and a lot of practice to master because the human brain is wired to make quick ‘guesstimates’ in order to function smoothly. These back-of-the-envelope calculations allow us to attend to tasks that would otherwise take conscious effort to perform. In other words, the ability of the brain to form a judgement at extreme speeds really comes with a trade-off: less rational and accurate decisions. And this steadily graduates from our spontaneous ability to make split-second decisions to even ones where we have time to think for – like investments. I like the idea of ‘non attachment’ and if I have understood your interpretation correctly, I may have practised it for long (it’s just that I don’t call it the same thing). The idea is to eliminate biases in thinking at even the subconscious level through sustained effort. For that, sometimes I am my own critic. Should I have done that? Does it make objective sense? Am I falling back upon history to answer the future? And so on…. Not sure if this helps but I have noticed keeping a boundary to our imagination is what truly hinders our thinking (and gives rise to biases). Our imagination is formed by our experiences and restricted by our senses of perception. In other words, sometimes being logical also does not equate to being imaginative. If investors do that, there would be more important questions to be answered even after they are able to think objectively – Can risk be quantified by mere standard deviation? Does CAPM hold in the real world? and so on…. My point here is, eliminating biases within the realm of the standard financial and economic literature would help little. We need to spread our imagination further to a point where we challenge the tenets of a system if the system is incorrect. That is where we may be able to truly make a difference with our evolved thinking.

    Regards,
    Jimmy

    1. Hello Jimmy!

      Thank you so much for the good words!

      Yes, non-attachment is practically never-ending work and yes, you understood exactly what I intended in describing non-attachment. If you are interested in more information on non-attachment, it is a fairly standard discussion topic in meditation groups. But based on your description you are already practicing non-attachment daily. Woohoo!

      I love your tying non-attachment and rationality to creativity. I think this is a very important point and one that is not discussed often enough in the investment world. Namely, our work is equal parts left-brain analysis, and right-brain creativity and intuition.

      Yours, in service!

      Jason

  6. Jimmy says:

    Thanks! If you like such topics, try reading some articles on neuroscience by Steven Novella. Although he writes on a lot of topics, his posts on logic and neuroscience may interest you.

    1. Hello again, Jimmy,

      I will do it! Thank you for the tip.

      With smiles,

      Jason

  7. Wai-Yee Chen says:

    Hi Jason, your example on the “waste company” above aptly reflect your point. It is not disimilar to my recent experience in losing on a put protection bought a few months earlier expired worthless at the end of September (market was peaking). The impulse then was to bury the loss but the instinct, having evaluated the investment situation then, which justifies a re-set to a new put protection despite the loss (non-attachment!), paid off. Stock markets globally tumbled in October (2014), previous losses were recouped. Support it! Wai-Yee Chen, NeuroInvesting

    1. Hello Chen,

      Thank you for sharing your story with the audience…and congratulations of the success of your choice! By the way, you may be interested in my post where I discuss the difference between instinct and intuition:

      The Intuitive Investor: Why Intuition is Important
      http://blogs.cfainstitute.org/investor/2014/06/24/the-intuitive-investor/

      and its sister piece…

      The Intuitive Investor: Defining Intuition
      http://blogs.cfainstitute.org/investor/the-intuitive-investor-defining-intuition/

      Yours, in service,

      Jason

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