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Hour between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom
and Bust
John Coates, senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of
Cambridge, offers a number of fascinating lessons from a booming new field, the
biology of risk, in The Hour between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and
the Biology of Boom and Bust. He reveals how risk taking and stress transform our
body chemistry, driving us to irrational exuberance or pessimism. He asserts that
under some circumstances, the chemical surges can overwhelm us and when that
overconfidence or extreme timidity. Coates contends that these extremes can
destabilize the financial markets and wreak havoc on the wider economy. In this
reviewer’s opinion, it is reasonable to conclude that this overconfidence could
contribute significantly to market bubbles. Conversely, it is also reasonable to
conclude that traders and investors may exhibit such timidity and excessive
pessimism that they elect to remain on the sidelines despite appealing valuations
during severe market declines. These two effects have a destabilizing impact on
asset prices and financial markets.
Coates, who once headed a derivatives trading desk, focuses on the moment of
Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation that traders pass through when under pressure.
This moment of transformation, which the French have called “the hour between
dog and wolf” since the Middle Ages, results from rising levels of testosterone that
increase both one’s self-confidence and, crucially, one’s appetite for risk.
According to Coates, traders and investors become cocky and irrationally risk
seeking when on a winning streak but tentative and risk averse when recovering
from losses. Coates discusses the “winner effect,” a model borrowed from the study
of animal behavior, which offers an explanation of trader behavior during market
bubbles. This model suggests that winners in battle emerge with heightened levels
of testosterone and the losers, with reduced levels. If the winners proceed to a
further round of competition, they do so with already elevated testosterone and