The Balance of Trust and Anxiety

brooklyn bridge


This article originally appeared in the The Denver Post, April 16, 2023.

At the time of its construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the largest structures the world had ever seen. Opening in 1883 to connect Brooklyn with Manhattan, it was twice the size of any other suspension bridge. But the then-modern marvel of engineering raised suspicion from the general public. Citizens feared the massive structure was simply too big to support its own weight, and rumors circulated about its likely collapse into the East River.

In an effort to subdue these concerns, developers encouraged citizens to walk on the bridge a week before its grand opening. Brave and curious members of the public cautiously stepped afoot. Anxiety was high. Suddenly a scream was heard, and panic ensued. In less than 15 seconds, the entire bridge was engulfed in fear and chaos. The resulting stampede left 12 dead and many more injured.

The cause of the panic? A woman had tripped and fallen. When anxiety is high, irrational behavior often accompanies it.

Controlling such emotions, whether ours or someone else’s, often proves challenging. Fear is contagious and can lead to unimaginable reactions.

In 1938, more than 50 years after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, Orson Welles went live on the radio the night before Halloween. As he read the drama War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells to listeners countrywide, his adaptation was both entertaining and lifelike — a little too lifelike for some. A few who tuned in late thought they may be hearing of an actual Martian invasion. Panicked phone calls flooded in as anxiety-ridden listeners tried to decipher what was real. Though many factors contributed to their confusion (a lack of commercial breaks, for instance), the anxiety of the moment (just before World War II and nearly on Halloween) certainly compounded their stress.

When general anxiety is high, fear usually is as well. And that fear can drive irrational decisions. You likely saw the recent news about the downfall of one of the largest banks in America, Silicon Valley Bank. Seemingly overnight, this pillar of finance for the largest tech market in the world went from rock solid to teetering on the edge of disaster. While the exact events that led to this transition are still under investigation, the initial belief is that a few well-connected tech entrepreneurs had doubts about the long-term solvency of the bank. A few pulled their accounts and encouraged others to do the same. An old-fashioned bank run was the result, and the government and Federal Reserve had to step in to reassure markets and prevent “contagion,” effectively another word for herd mentality. The sole focus became: What can the government and Fed do to convince people that the banks are not teetering on the edge?

The fear seems to be contained for the moment. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Whether the bank’s investments were sound I cannot say, but I can see how similar human behavior was at play in all these examples.

I tend to think of anxiety as the antithesis to trust. If the two existed on opposite sides of a teeter totter, you could imagine low trust coexists with high anxiety and vice versa. If we don’t trust our significant other, we have high anxiety about the relationship. If we’re constantly anxious about politics, we probably don’t trust our politicians. With a 24-hour news cycle bombarding us with continuous negativity, is it any wonder trust is low?

“You never know what the American public is going to do, but you know that they will do it all at once,” said William Seidman, former head of the FDIC. Recognizing how susceptible we are to others’ emotions, we see how quickly we can create poor outcomes. The challenge lies in our perspective.

If you feel fearful, take a moment and consider why. What led to your fear? Is it logically justified? What is true about the situation? What is based on hearsay or doomsday thinking?

Remember that the news you read online or see on TV is often incentivized to create an emotional response, and the most powerful emotional responses are fear and outrage. These stories are designed to make you angry about what you see; it’s how they drive higher ratings.

Each of us can manage what we see and who we surround ourselves with. Your attention is a valuable resource, and you must protect it from those who seek to profit from it. Our own worst enemy is often found in the space between our ears, but that’s also where we have an opportunity to shift our focus. Even amidst chaos, we can choose our own perspective and behaviors.

In today’s seemingly data-driven world, it’s easy to dismiss human behavior. Yet the nuance in these behaviors is the root cause of so many outcomes, both in and out of the stock market. Your challenge as an investor is to account for the inevitable missteps in the behaviors of yourself and those around you. Think about your thinking, and remember to seek perspective.

Steve Booren

Steve Booren is the Owner and Founder of Prosperion Financial Advisors, located in Greenwood Village, Colo. He is the author of Blind Spots: The Mental Mistakes Investors Make and Intelligent Investing: Your Guide to a Growing Retirement Income and a regular columnist in The Denver Post. He was recently named a Barron's Top Financial Advisor and recognized as a Forbes Top Wealth Advisor in Colorado.

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The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.