But these earlier holdups had happened in a rising market. So the experience was like a brief power outage. Unsettling, yes. A sign that something needed fixing. And a fix was expected soon, no later than 1930.
On that nervous Thursday, though, the outage came on a dark cliffside drive. Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—suddenly unsure of the value of their holdings—instinctively pulled back. The ticker fell 15 minutes behind. “Prices fell farther and faster, and the ticker lagged more and more,” John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Great Crash: 1929. “By eleven-thirty the market had surrendered to blind, relentless fear.” By then the lag was 48 minutes. At 1 p.m., the machine was quoting prices 92 minutes old—leaving people to their worst imaginings. When a workman was seen high on a building outside the exchange, a crowd assumed he was about to jump.
Inside the exchange, the panic was checked when the banker Thomas Whitney strode onto the floor and loudly purchased 10,000 shares of steel. Shares rebounded furiously in the afternoon—but, tragically, the lagging ticker failed to carry news of the recovery elsewhere. In Chicago, the Tribune reported, “thousands … threw themselves before the fire of brokers’ clerks demanding margins” based on information that, by day’s end, was four hours, eight-and-a-half minutes old.
If the tale of the lagging tape has a lesson, it’s that negative information gets crises rolling, but lack of information creates free-fall panic.
Why? What behavioral economists observe they can’t always explain, but their best guess goes something like this: Humans have the capacity to absorb loss. They also have the ability to process risk. Risk is measurable uncertainty. What they can’t process is ambiguity; that is, unmeasurable uncertainty.
We’re living through this right now. In the absence of data, the calculative machinery in our prefrontal lobes has nothing to do—irrational biases don’t even get a chance to weigh in—inviting our older, animal brain to either freak out or fill the void with whatever junk it can find. Rumor. Invention. Tweets. Bats. Maybe a map showing 250 COVID-19 cases in the state. New cases, or total? Unclear. Out of how many tested? It doesn’t say. Incomplete information only adds to our sense of not knowing.
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“Fear of the unknown (FOTU) will be defined herein as, ‘an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing,’” a paper by the Regina University psychologist Nicholas Carleton begins, which proposes that FOTU is not only a fear but the fear on which all the others rest. There’s certainly evidence to support the notion. People prefer a definite electric shock now to a possible one later, studies have shown. They’re more likely to choose medical treatments for which the odds of survival are at least known. And marketers prey on FOTU all the time. A comedian friend of mine once had a bit about shopping in the dairy aisle and spotting a bottle of “cow-dung free” milk.