The Economics of Stock Market Fear for Physicians

Panic Control and the Possibility of Severe Financial Degradation 

By Somnath Basu PhD, MBA []

[Director California Institute of Finance]

An experiential learning of mammoth proportions occurred several weeks ago in the financial markets. The absolute 10 minute freefall of the prices of stocks and bonds, without any pre-notification froze the hearts of many physicians and lay others both in, and outside, of the investment community. The possibility of a one trillion dollar loss had suddenly and unexpectedly turned real. It happened in a matter of minutes. This experience of panic, of the possibility of a severe economic degradation of life becoming immediately real, is like none other that most of us can ever remember experiencing. Even the 1987 crash happened over a large part of that Monday. Like then, this time too there is no known reason of why it happened, though attempts are being made to understand the cause(s). Whatever the reasons may be, it will not change the experience we had of the realization of the fear of a sudden and unexpectedly large loss.

Event Analogies

Before going deeper into the experienced fear, it is useful to provide some analogies to the event. If the meltdown in the financial markets of 2008 was like an earthquake, then this was like a severe aftershock. It is also similar to going down one of those severe roller coaster freefalls that some may consider very undesirable. Alternately, what makes a 30 year old physician be mostly unconcerned about his/her lack of retirement savings while a 60 year old doctor in the same poor condition is much more concerned. Obviously, the possibility of a lower quality of economic life is much more real for the elder than the younger. In such cases we would expect the fear of an economically degraded life to spur people to take preventive or remedial action.

Understanding Fear

To truly understand our responses to fear, we need to go deeper into our minds. According to behavioral psychologists and neurologists both, there are various segments within our mind. For example, one segments of our mind (the frontal lobe) is understood to process analytical tasks. Similarly, other parts of our brain (the older limbic system composed of mammalian and reptilian brains) react to and affect/control our emotions and fear. When we are faced with an immediate threat, this older system takes over control of our reactions and often drives us towards instinctive responses and will not, in general, make the analytically reasoned response. It is similar to learning about all the different ways we need to behave in the wild if we came across a bear. When people actually are faced by such a situation, they rarely remember all their learning and respond with their instincts. Those are the limbic responses. In other words, when threats are real, our emotional mechanisms will dominate our rational mind and we will react according to our older and longer existing nature.

Shocked Limbic System

Such was the effect of the financial freeform. In those 10 minutes the economic shock to our limbic system was the first of its kind, in terms of magnitude. While discussions are held about sudden unexpected losses, typically the impact of sudden huge losses in a very very short period of time is rarely thought of in very meaningful ways because the probability is so very low. This time, it did actually happen! We will bear some consequences which will begin playing themselves out slowly over this summer. For one, the investing nation will be much more circumspect about stocks and other volatile financial instruments. In a more technical way, our risk aversion as a nation will have suddenly increased. This will have an impact on both trading volume and security market prices and eventually on portfolio values. How younger physicians and other investors will react is less known.


Finally, there is one important lesson in behavioral finance for us all – and that is for medical professionals to find competent financial advisors and planners who can safely herald all people in these times. It also is probably an important point to understand why the portfolios of older physicians should consider safety of principal first whilst the younger ones focus on growing their wealth.

Editor’s Note: Somnath Basu PhD is program director of the California Institute of Finance in the School of Business at California Lutheran University where he’s also a professor of finance. He can be reached at (805) 493 3980 or See the agebander at work at


And so, your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Would anyone like to discuss neurotransmitters or chime in on the flight or fight response? Are these very human reactions any different for doctors? How about feelings of “fear” or stock-market “panic attacks?”

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One Response

  1. This event also brings to mind another subject in the field of Behavioral Finance – the concept of “loss aversion”.

    People feel the pain of loss twice as much as they derive pleasure from an equal gain. Studies show that humans process investment losses using the same part of the brain that responds to mortal danger. A 10% loss in the market causes twice the emotion as a 10% gain would elicit, and the short time period involved in the “flash crash” compounded this effect.

    Brian J. Knabe MD CMP™ FAAFP
    Savant Capital Management, Inc®
    190 Buckley Drive
    Rockford, IL 61107
    Tel 815-227-0300
    Fax 815-226-2195


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