When Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in US history in September 2008, it took 24 days for the stock market to fall 20%. Over the past 24 hours, the price of bitcoin plummeted 28%.
From the day of Apple’s IPO in 1980, it took about 25 years for the company’s value to grow 1,000%. Ripple, one of the most valuable digital asset after bitcoin, rose 1,135% last month alone.
For cryptocurrency enthusiasts, checking your portfolio has become a sort of game. Whether that bitcoin you bought a few years ago is now worth 10k or you’ve just put your first $100 into ethereum, investors find themselves mindlessly swiping down to refresh their digital wallets in the same way a middle schooler might flick a fidget spinner. With the ability to make—or lose—thousands in a matter of minutes, compulsively checking the state of the market is basically the new CandyCrush.
(Side note: Ripple’s logo also happens to look exactly like a literal fidget spinner.)
Now that we all have smartphones in our pockets, financial FOMO has never been more accessible. While our insatiable appetite to monitor the rise and fall of investments is nothing new, what is new is the extreme volatility of cryptocurrencies, and how affected we are—both financially and emotionally—by their fluctuations.
But hey, maybe it’s not our fault—perhaps psychology is to blame. Thanks in part to social media, that on-demand dopamine drip is exactly what we’ve been conditioned to crave.
The ups and downs
The internet has turned us into excitement-seeking machines. Many social-media sites take advantage of this by employing some basic science. In behavioral psychology, the cycle of linking actions with rewards is called reinforcement. When a certain behavior (like scrolling down to refresh your Facebook feed) is followed by a reward (like receiving new status updates from your friends), you’re more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
But when users acclimate to the reward promised—when the consequence of your actions becomes more predictable—the behavior loses its shine. The best way to keep people coming back and repeating behaviors is actually not to give them what they want all the time: It’s to drive them crazy by only giving it to them some of the time.
In behavioral psychology, this is called “variable-ratio reinforcement.” The theory was pioneered by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, when he discovered that a rat would continue hitting a lever that would occasionally release a pellet of food for much longer than one on a set, predictable schedule. Today we see this in slot machines, where the thrill of wondering if you’ll get a reward keeps you gambling; it’s more exhilarating to put a quarter in a slot 10 times with a small chance of winning $1 million than safely putting your money in the bank where it will safely (but slowly) accrue interest.
Likewise, product designers discovered if you want to keep a behavior addicting, all you have to do is make the reward more variable. Nir Eyal, who studied how digital technologies can influence behavior at the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, uses variable rewards to manufacture desire in tech products. His latest book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, found that unpredictable rewards in the software we use hook us more than predictable rewards.
Playing the stock or crypto market is much the same, with cryptocurrency’s volatile market creating the perfect storm for addiction. For the uninformed investor—and let’s face it, almost all crypto investing is speculative at this point—day-trading digital assets is like playing a giant slot machine. The price of a currency can induce depression or joy in the blink of an eye. But the problem with crypto is that the consequences can be a lot more dire than losing a few quarters.
Investors check the value of their digital wallets as if it were a dystopian measure of self-worth from an episode of Black Mirror. And when so many people seem to be getting rich around you, the perceived importance of monitoring the markets becomes even more urgent.
“We used to think of people investing in crypto as the anonymous internet,” says Hunter Horsely, the founder of Bitwise, a cryptocurrency index fund. “But now it’s people’s moms who are putting in their savings. Would you expect them to trade high yield corporate debt or crude oil? Probably not. People are not well-calibrated to this kind of emotional volatility.”
Some crypto startups have had to actively take steps to discourage irresponsible investing from their users. But crypto companies have a lot to gain from maximizing user attention. For example, Coinbase, the largest digital currency exchange, gets a cut of every transaction made through their service. Naturally, the design of their app encourages the constant monitoring of prices. The app opens to a dashboard of charts that can break down price changes to the minute, and users can set up push notifications to be informed when different currencies are trending. With so much money to be made, it’s practically impossible not to look.
The problem is not just that constantly monitoring the price of these currencies is an emotional roller coaster—it’s also a lousy investment strategy. Common-sense finance gurus like Warren Buffett tout the importance of long-term thinking when it comes to investment strategy. “People get excited from big price movements, and Wall Street accommodates,” Buffett said. “But you can’t value bitcoin because it’s not a value-producing asset.”
Patrick Griffin, SVP of business development at Ripple, disagrees. He believes that the value of the assets will be realized over time: “It’s still early days for the digital-asset market, and while it’s easy for some people to get caught up in the day-to-day price fluctuations, we believe that the long-term value of these assets will be derived from utility.” Regardless of your belief in cryptocurrencies’ inherent value, buoying your emotional well-being to their prices is always going to be a losing game. Although social media has conditioned us to check our phones over 40 times a day, resisting the urge for instant gratification is a better strategy for your wealth and your mental health.
In the words of Warren Buffett, “Successful investing takes time, discipline and patience…You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”