Project onto blanks

Keanu Reeves – good films, bad actor?

I read an interesting article recently on Keanu Reeves acting style. Apparently in the world of acting, his style is to present himself as a blank canvas, upon which viewers can project themselves. It helps explain why I love so many of his movies (Matrix, Point Break, John Wick, Bill & Ted), but struggle to understand why, as he doesn’t appear to be a very good actor.

This style of acting certainly makes sense in the context of watching a film, we gain particular pleasure from being able to imagine ourselves as a participant in the drama. Similarly, I have also read that men watching sport are essentially fantasizing that they are actually playing themselves.

Keanu’s aim is not to overwhelm, his voice and facial expressions are muted, the personality left somewhat undefined and given this lack of concrete character, we can overwrite with our own feelings. Although I’m less of a fan, it helps explain why Tom Cruise is such a successful leading man.

This concept does not just apply to sports and movies, it occurs to me to this has wider applications:


Extension to business

An area where I find I’m mindful of this issue is when I conduct an interview at work.

If I run an informal, unstructured interview then often my impression of a candidate will relate closely to my mood. If I am highly positive and energetic, then we are likely to have an energetic conversation and I will come out thinking this person has those qualities. I tend to think well of people and so am in danger of projecting the qualities I like onto them.

Over time, I have built a more structured interview and hiring process, with a prepared common list of questions and involving independent interviewers. This helps to highlight a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in a more objective manner.


Extension to politics

The effect in politics is also interesting, perhaps increasingly so.

The marketing of politicians has evolved over the decades. It used to be that politicians had a set of views, often described in speeches and laid out in a manifesto.  Later it seems clear that to win an election you do not need to have coherent views and that the overall spin and marketing is what matters.  Now, it appears that elections have moved to another level.  Politicians are even more electable if their views are actively incoherent.  A politician is no longer required to be a well-rounded person with specific policies and characteristics which can be evaluated – it is more important to be an avatar for the emotions of their support base.

The outstanding recent example of this is of course Trump. But it also helps explain the behaviour of the leading Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson. A lack of coherent viewpoints is not a flaw, it is the essence of their appeal. They are liked because of their incoherence, not in spite of it.  By making rambling, nonsensical speeches without the need to engage with any aspect of reality, they create a perfect blank upon which the emotions of their supporters can be projected. You do not need to look for the inconsistencies and incompatibilities within their support base, they are sure to exist. What’s more important is the common emotional need they all share, and wish to express.

This also means that whatever you think of Trump or Boris personally, they are not the real problem.
Without them, another avatar would be found to take their place. Boris will only remain the darling of the Telegraph as long as he continues talking gobbledygook in a manner they find amusing.  He knows that if he gave a serious speech acknowledging the trade-offs involved in Brexit, they would find another to take his place, so he happily makes speeches which he must know are full of lies and nonsense. It is very possible that Trump does not understand any of this or that he is not in control of his movement, or even his own identity. His candidate lost the recent Alabama primary to a candidate promoted as backed by the @realDonaldTrump. Steve Bannon told a rally “a vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J Trump”, while Trump himself was campaigning for Sen. Strange!

The movement existed before Trump and is merely using him as its current symbol. They are in a symbiotic relationship of mutual support, and have created a powerful and dangerous, political force.

Questions I like to ask in meetings

“I don’t understand”

The number one, most useful phrase to use in a meeting, when:

  1. I simply did not get something and it seems important
    Perhaps there is a missing context, perhaps it is something very unfamiliar or maybe I am missing something obvious. To be a full participant in the meeting, it is important to pause here and get clarity.
  2. I did not get something and suspect that a mistake has been made                  Someone that can explain their conclusions from “first principles” without obfuscation, generally has thought through a problem deeply. Asking for a proper explanation in a meeting, generally exposes mistakes in the analysis or a mistake that I have made (point 1). The analysis is often entirely sensible, but may lack full consideration of other aspects or links to other parts of the project.

People often avoid saying “I don’t understand” as they don’t want to appear silly; this form of bluffing can create a huge drag on the performance of a team. To this end, I consciously trying to create a positive culture around it, showing no embarrassment when expressing the fact I do not understand.


“Can we go back to the beginning?”

(1). I suspect the project/meeting is going off track and I want to go back and check assumptions.

A very common error, which relates to my previous post, is to assume that previous decisions are irrevocable and so choices are limited and forced.
For example, let’s say that in the early stages of a project, a decision was made to prefer option A over option B. This was an entirely sensible and pragmatic choice given the information at the time and a sensible amount of due diligence. Later in the project, we have hit a problem and we need to do something we do not like to progress.

Typically, a team would think the options are:

i. Cancel the project (often not feasible)

ii. Find some creative alternative to move forward (let’s try but cannot find one)

iii. Move ahead – even if it is unpalatable

Options i) and ii) may not be possible and option iii) can often have terrible results.
What has been missed is iv):

iv. Go back to a previous decision and see if changing that, allows us to go around the issue.

In my experience, project teams often really dislike this option, as it feels like they are going backwards and destroying previous work. In practice, much of the work is still relevant and progress can be made extremely quickly, ending up at a far better place.


(2). I suspect we are making the wrong sort of “plan”.
Again, this is related to my previous post. Discussion seems to have moved on to implementation, when we ought to be talking about “ideas and suggestions” (i.e. what we should be doing). You may often feel like you are fighting a very strong prevailing current of thought, especially when you have a team of competent implementers who may consider the creative phase as going backwards or just wasting time. To make this happen, I often have to be quite determined and utilise personal capital to persuade people we should spend our time this way.

If I think of when I have added the most value to a project, it is often because I helped us go back and re-evaluate previous decisions. When I think of the worst projects I have been involved with, a common feature was ploughing on when we actually needed to rethink our entire approach.

“Can I have a worked example?”

Words often don’t mean the same thing to everyone, they often mean different things in different contexts; it’s the great and terrible thing about words and it has enormous scope for confusion within a team. Examples are a great way to help explain a concept, especially ones with numbers in Excel!

  • Do the numbers add up? The critical test, often missed. We miss that we have double counted something, missed an item entirely or simply made a miscalculation.
  • Does it have logical coherence? With an example, it is far easier to see where there has been an assumption or missed step.
  • Did the words mean what I thought they meant? Examples can often show a very different meaning to the entire concept and its previous description.



These key questions all display some lack of comprehension, a desire to go back a stage and to clarify or rethink. I think these are most useful questions, because culturally we have been trained not to behave this way. Few children want to put up their hand in class and admit they do not understand, risking the contempt and ridicule of their peers for not keeping up. In my early career, I saw people progressing by projecting confidence, which only much later I understood to be a thin veneer. It takes courage to behave this way in a meeting – but perhaps when someone else does you can support them because you understand why it is so important.

Decision Making

Decision making is an area of interest I frequently return to. Last week I explained how I like to work to a new starter at the firm, and thought it would be a good opportunity to share more broadly.

Building a robust process that supports decision making has been crucial throughout my trading career, but I now find it helpful more generally in many areas of my life.

I outline my approach below. To me, it is both simple and comes naturally. However, I wonder how common such an approach is, given how often confusion arises.

Before I go through the individual steps, perhaps the most important aspect to emphasize is the difference between the steps in yellow, which focus on what we should do, and those in blue which concern how we should go about it. This helps form a clear division between before and after a decision has been made.

Steps in the process


This stage is free and unconstrained – the objective is creativity

  • Do not dismiss anything
  • Be open to other people’s ideas
  • Do not worry too much about practicality or attractiveness



Suggestions are ideas that are liked, or at least plausible – the objective is initial due diligence

  • Intelligent pushback
  • Alternative suggestions (and perhaps even completely new ideas)
  • Plausibility analysis

(Note “suggestions” is plural i.e. still at the stage of multiple possibilities.)


The objective here is sufficient detail needed to make a decision.

  • Narrowed to a primary suggestion, or perhaps an examination of a small number of options.
  • Key area is to highlight major issues/red flags
  • No problem suggesting going back a stage for some more ideas and suggestions rather than moving ahead.



A clear moment and where the project transitions to a very different stage.


Objective here is work out how to do something and actually do it

  • Most people are far more comfortable at this stage


To illustrate the process, here is a trading example:

(1) Ideas

Let’s just list a few basic investment ideas:

Buy S+P

Sell S+P

Buy European equities

Buy EM equities

Sell US bonds

(2) Suggestions

We like the idea of long equity exposure
We narrow down to S+P and DAX as the prime candidates

(3) Proposal

After detailed analysis, the proposal from the analysis team is
“to buy $50m of S+P as soon as practical.”

(4) Decision

After review, the proposal is refined, and we decide to buy $75m of S+P exposure

(5) Implementation

At this stage, the process of ideas, suggestion, proposal, and decision can be repeated, this time for implementation. Thus, a decision could be to use S+P mini futures and execute within the first hour of the opening of the US cash market the next trading day.



What goes wrong?

Over the years, I observe that many people in a work environment show a preference for either the pre-decision “ideas and suggestions” zone or the post decision “implementation” zone, rarely both. Each style can be very useful, but I’ve learnt it’s important to be aware of the differences, to play to people’s strength and to avoid confusion.

Those who prefer implementation:

  • Premature decision making

It’s very easy to start the process with a decision already made, skipping the supporting steps, with any subsequent analysis purely a rationalisation to present to others and ourselves, in other words confirmation bias.

  • Rush to implementation

In the framework above, it is clear an idea is not a decision and also a suggestion is not a decision. In reality, what can sometimes happen is when I suggest an idea, people around me think I have made a decision and move straight to how we would implement. This is especially confusing when it turns out that those same people never thought it was a good idea! People often explain that previous bosses have strong opinions and just expect to get it done. In this respect, I have learnt to be very explicit to avoid causing confusion.

Those who prefer the ideas and suggestions stages:

  • Lack of details

Preferring the positivity and creativity of the early stages, people often don’t value the details or due diligence required to actually make a decision. Red flags or major issues are critical to consider pre-decision, as once the decision is made, momentum makes it hard to go back again.

  • Inability to drill down to a concrete proposal

We can always find another idea or another suggestion.
However there comes a stage of pragmatism in all decision making, when some suggestions need to be discarded, and others more deeply investigated to form a proposal.
This is also the stage where implementation considerations are important; but people who prefer “ideas and suggestions” may not pay sufficient attention to these and so it’s crucial to widen the team.



Note that I did not use the word “plan” above. This is because it is commonly used to describe a proposal and also relates to implementation. In fact, these stages share common materials; the details from the proposal will often cover some of the implementation. The crucial difference is one is before decision and the other is after.

Again, people used to working on implementation, can take the details involved in the proposal as indication that a decision has been make. The temptation to move the project along, rather that focus on any issues that may indicate a major mistake.



To make good decisions, it’s clear you need both types of people!

Having a team which excels at implementation is a wonderful thing, similarly having people around you that get energised by thinking about new ideas. But even more important perhaps, is making sure that you spend sufficient time and energy on both aspects and find a way to integrate the contributions of everyone.

Thinking about where you sit in the process above, being aware what kind of preferences you have, could be helpful to your career, making you much more effective within teams at work.

The Backfire Effect

Recently in the news

  • You may find it puzzling that Republican voters are still backing Trump.
  • You may be amazed that the same voters do not believe that Russia interfered with the election, or that there is any connection to the Trump campaign.
  • In that case you must be shocked that the recent Donald Junior revelations have make their belief in ‘no collusion’ even stronger.[1]

But then again, is it that surprising? I previously discussed confirmation bias and desirability bias ( and but in this case feels like there is a different driver at work.

“Backfire effect”

This recent paper [2] found that “direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs”. This is the “backfire effect”.

In contrast to what we saw previously:

Here we have:

The more evidence and the clearer the evidence against Trump, the more strongly his supporters believe him innocent. Trump supporters are not backing him because of facts or policies, this is about ideology and culture and it is a battle. Facts are irrelevant.

There are plenty of examples which demonstrate this. Tim Harford talks about how the tobacco industry managed to delay regulation for decades despite overwhelming evidence showing the link between smoking and cancer. [3] Another favourite example is what happens to cult members who believe that the world will end on a specific day. They give away their possessions and prepare for their ascension to heaven/alien spaceship. When the day arrives and nothing actually happens, they do not lose their faith; their faith in the end of the world actually increases. Perhaps the “backfire effect” also explains why Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq War became more fervent despite mounting evidence against the entire premise.

Back to Trump-gate

Given this, I fear that this ever-larger number of smoking guns will not help the Democrats much, even with increasing suggestions of criminal activity not just from the Trump campaign but from the Trump family itself. The way to defeat the Backfire effect is not to counter with ever more evidence. There was no possible evidence based argument that would have changed Blair’s mind about war.

The best approach is to build a compelling alternative narrative. Corbyn did this very successfully in the last election, making no attempt to defend himself against May’s attacks, focusing only on what he wanted to talk about. He did not change people’s minds about Trident, he stopped them thinking about it. What we focus on is far more important than the content of the debate.

Like all cognitive biases, spotting them in others is far easier than in oneself. We can all fall foul of the “backfire effect” when it comes to our most central values and beliefs. For business and investment, it has perhaps led to the most catastrophic of errors. The disasters of RBS, Lehman and Enron can be traced to core beliefs that proved successful at first, but then warning signs were ignored as the management became ever more evangelical in their confidence that their path was the right one.

When we are looking for investment analysis or advice, then we should be very wary of those with high and unchanging conviction. Some of the ones I regularly come across: the EU will break up/stick together or China will implode/ take over global dominance or the bond market will crash/inflation will never return. They argue passionately and eloquently (they are well practised) but are the ones most likely to be victims of the “backfire effect”. The element that makes them so popular as guru strategists and TV pundits makes them highly unreliable sources of investment advice.

Perhaps we should simply recognise that we may easily fall for this as individuals, but by building diverse enough teams and open enough culture, we may not fall for the same cognitive flaws.


As with confirmation bias and desirability bias, the “backfire effect” is important and can warp your interpretation of the world. Your political enemies and people you do not respect will not be the only victims of this. We can all fall prey to it and should be most sceptical of our views which are most closely linked to our core values and beliefs.