Gut Feelings in Financial Trading Decision-Making

Financial traders often trust their gut instincts. We explore how more experienced traders hone this skill.

Interoceptive Awareness

It is commonly believed that our decisions in financial markets are driven primarily by rational and conscious cognitive processes. However, recent research has shown that the relationship between interoception and decision-making provides significant insights for financial professionals.

Interoception is our ability to detect and interpret subtle signals from our internal bodily systems. These signals are crucial in maintaining physiological homeostasis, ensuring our body's equilibrium. Leading scholars, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett (2016), propose that all mental events, including cognitive processes, emotions, perception, and actions, fundamentally influence the body's constant drive to maintain homeostasis. This perspective suggests that decision-making is inherently connected to bodily experiences and motivated by the body’s imperative to sustain energy balance and survival.

In practical terms, consider the brain a vigilant guardian of your physical well-being. It continually anticipates and satisfies the body's physical needs, whether it's quenching thirst, satisfying hunger, or responding to stress—all in pursuit of maintaining optimal conditions for survival. Within this framework, it becomes evident that decision-making is an embodied process driven by our body's intricate signals and motivated by the necessity to preserve physiological equilibrium. This perspective highlights the significance of physiological sensations in decision-making, often encapsulated in expressions like "gut feeling" or "cold feet."

In financial trading, where precise and timely decisions are paramount, "gut feelings" or interoceptive sensations play a vital role in our decision-making without our conscious awareness. These sensations originate from various bodily organs, including the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. They encompass a spectrum of cues, from fluctuations in temperature to breathlessness, heightened heart rate, and digestive signals. Importantly, these sensations operate outside the realm of conscious awareness.

Nevertheless, these subtle physiological cues hold profound significance, particularly in high-stakes trading scenarios. During these critical moments, our body orchestrates rapid and nuanced physiological adjustments, providing real-time feedback to the brain. This feedback, often unspoken but keenly felt, directly influences our trading decisions. It acts as a compass, steering us away from choices that may result in financial losses and guiding us toward options with profit potential. What's remarkable is that this intuitive process empowers us to make crucial decisions before we can consciously articulate the underlying rationale.

Proficiency in Heartbeat Detection and Financial Success

Financial traders often rely on their "gut feelings" when deciding which trades to execute. To test the validity of this approach, a pioneering study was conducted by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Sussex in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology in Australia. The study compared the interoceptive abilities of financial traders to a control group of non-traders. Their findings, published in Scientific Reports, provide valuable insights into the relationship between physiology and financial success.

The study recruited 18 male traders from a hedge fund specialising in high-frequency trading. This area of finance requires traders to make rapid decisions based on constantly changing information and price patterns, often in a matter of seconds. While successful traders can earn substantial profits, those who fail to generate profits are quickly replaced. The study found that financial traders performed significantly better in heartbeat detection tasks compared to the control group. On average, traders scored 78.2, while the control group scored 66.9. Additionally, those traders who excelled in the heartbeat detection tasks performed better in trading and earned higher profits. The most interesting discovery was that an individual's ability to sense their own heartbeat could predict their endurance in the financial markets. The results suggest that interoceptive awareness plays a significant role in financial success.

This study is particularly significant as it was conducted during the Eurozone crisis, a time of considerable financial instability. This unique circumstance allowed the researchers to evaluate individual traders' capacity to accrue profits during periods of volatility. The study assessed differences in the traders' abilities to detect subtle changes in their physiological states by using established heartbeat detection tasks to measure their degree of interoceptive awareness. These scores were then compared with data from a control group of 48 students at the University of Sussex. The study's findings may contribute to a better understanding of the factors influencing traders' performance, particularly during economic uncertainty.

Implications for Financial Markets and Economics

These discoveries directly challenge the established 'Efficient Markets Hypothesis' (EMH) within economic theory. The EMH contends that financial markets are inherently stochastic and fully assimilate all available information, suggesting that no individual trait or skill can enhance the performance of an investor or trader. The idea that a significant portion of a trader's performance in financial markets is intricately linked to their physiological makeup carries profound implications for our understanding of financial systems.

In economics and finance, conventional models have traditionally focused on conscious reasoning and cognitive elements. However, it’s imperative to undergo a paradigm shift towards a more holistic perspective that explores the dynamic interplay between the body and the mind. To better understand risk-takers' performance, we must delve deeper into their physiological responses and adeptness in deciphering signals from their bodily systems. Although this perspective may be well-recognised by medical practitioners, it has, somewhat surprisingly, remained inconspicuous within the purview of economists.

Andrew Lo, a distinguished financial economist and professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, resonates with these viewpoints. He has achieved prominence for critically examining the EMH's assumptions and postulations. In particular, Lo has questioned the stringent interpretations of the EMH, offering an alternative framework known as the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis. His argument contends that market participants do not adhere strictly to rational or irrational behaviour but adapt their actions in response to shifting market conditions and personal experiences. This adaptive conduct can result in fluctuations in market efficiency over time. Moreover, Lo has been a proponent of behavioural finance. This field delves into how psychological and emotional factors can give rise to market inefficiencies, highlighting that investors are occasionally rational, and their actions may deviate from the predictions of traditional financial models.

The findings of this study offer a profound perspective on the relationship between success in the financial domain and the subtle signals emanating from our physical existence. Understanding and harnessing the power of interoceptive sensations can be a differentiator for traders seeking an edge. It's about acknowledging the intricate interplay between body and mind and leveraging this understanding to navigate the complexities of financial markets with greater precision and insight.





Kandasamy, N., Garfinkel, S. N., Page, L., Hardy, B., Critchley, H. D., Gurnell, M., & Coates, J. M. (2016). Interoceptive ability predicts survival on a London trading floor. Scientific Reports, 6(1).