The Mona Lisa and Why Complexity Sells

A record 10.2 million people visited the Louvre last year with the sole intention of visiting one of the most remarked-upon women of the modern world, the Mona Lisa. Countless art critics and historians have sought to unravel the source of our infatuation with Mona, largely because most of those who see her “in the flesh” walk away from the crowd with a quizzical expression. “Did I really just pay 10 euro to view a 30×21 inch painting from 8 feet away?!” you think, puzzled at how a painting so astoundingly simple has kept up it’s reputation for 516 years. Despite your initial expectations of a complex painting, more than likely you´ll rave about the genius of da Vinci ́s simplicity at your next dinner party.

Crowd at Louvre © Alicia Steels

As Morgan Housel eloquently argues in “Why Complexity Sells,” we overvalue that which appears challenging or lengthy. Evolution has proven, without reasonable doubt, that adapting “many things to a few really useful things” is the smartest way to ensure worth, survival, and competence. Yet, humans allow four false assumptions to rule when valuing -and paying a lot more for- complexity over simplicity.

 When I read his piece I could not think of a better example of these false assumptions ‘in the wild” than what we see in the wealth management industry. I have chosen to write this piece using Morgan’s thoughtful framework, because I myself believe in evolution and adding anything else to it would add complexity for the sake of complexity.

We assume:

  1. Simple = Simplistic
  2. Length = expertise, effort, and thoughtfulness
  3. Those who understand something we don’t must have “magic powers” 
  4. Complexity gives the impression of control, while something simple might be dumb luck 

Reviewing Assumptions

Finance, much like art, has plenty of condescending airs. It is often viewed as so astoundingly complex, that when we realize it can be quite simple… we think we must be missing something. The perception that financial planning is the work of genius finance wizards has been so thoroughly imposed in our society that when folks encounter a fiduciary advisor that keeps the investment side simple, they walk away feeling like they just saw the Giaconda.

Evolution leads to valuable simplicity. To ensure worth, survival and competence, the financial services industry is seeing rapid evolution by the way of simplification. Thus, Housel ́s Complexity Sells framework applies well to the changes we are rapidly observing in the wealth management industry. 

The “Simple = Simplistic” Assumption

We assume that “finance” reaps economic rewards because both the industry -with its 120 hour work-weeks and never-ending stream of hard to read charts- and the media (cough, cough Mr. Scorcese) have convinced us of such. The belief that if something sounds simple it must have been easy to create means that you assume you must pay “an unavoidable cost of admission” to understand or buy something of value.

The wealth management industry has taken advantage of our vulnerability to this assumption for decades by selling affluent individuals complex financial products at a steep price. The promise of outsized returns in complicated products is tough to resist, despite the fact that the data has shown that simpler low-cost ETF or index mutual funds perform better net of fees.

Likewise, it is thought that the Mona Lisa will be a sight for sore eyes because da Vinci painstakingly painted her on a poplar wood panel, instead of the traditional canvas. Furthermore, in the sixteenth century, realistic portraits were rather rare and da Vinci ́s use of the sfumato technique, an evolution of traditional use of light and shadow in art, created the perception that it was incredibly challenging for the artist, thereby upping the assumed value of the artwork. In fact, the sfumato effect evidenced in the da Vinci’s work, appears so simple and natural that most cannot even tell it’s there!

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna & Child with St. Anne, 1500-13

The “Length = Expertise” Assumption

The finance industry’s evolution has created a space for automation that often makes the complex, quick and easy. From automatic portfolio rebalancing and model asset allocation portfolios, the industry is delivering products and services that minimize length while increasing expertise. Despite this, individuals that intend to invest can ́t believe something so difficult can be done without spending hundreds of hours on it. 

When we hire a financial advisor, we expect that they will convey their value by producing massive amounts of documents and charts. Housel ́s theory behind this assumption is that “length indicates the author has spent more time thinking about a topic than you have, which can be the only data point signaling they might have insight you don’t.” As finance evolves, fiduciary advisors are finding ways to illustrate insights about the clients’ financial life through succinct and easy to understand financial plans with fewer bells & whistles. 

Once more, the Mona Lisa proves size does not equate to thoughtfulness or value. Since her image has been made larger-than-life, seeing the very small painting in person produces shock. Expecting a giant painting throws people off from their assumption that da Vinci is an expert because of the magnitude of his artworks.

The “Magic Powers” Assumption  

Known as the Mona Lisa effect, the famed optical illusion makes the viewer believe that the painting is following you regardless of where you stand. The complexity in achieving that simple trick compels you to think there must be something more to the painting! The admiration comes from that which is not fully understood. 

Math is notoriously complex. In school, it was painful for most of us, so finance sounds like medieval sorcery. Since most people do not understand complex mathematics (or art) those who do have a certain “mystique.” A great fiduciary financial advisor is able to simplify the complex without making the investor feel as though they have to take what they say at face value. 

The “Controlled > Clueless” Assumption

Your money and finances as a whole are a big deal. How could they not be… you’ve spent your entire life working hard to grow your wealth! The comfort that comes from knowing that every single detail related to your finances is controlled makes for a feeling of deep comfort. Saying out loud that one does not know what the market will do in the coming years might make an advisor seem ‘clueless’ when in reality it shows self-awareness of what they do not have control of; future returns. 

So while, as Morgan describes, “a handful of variables dictate the majority of outcomes,” one can be easily fooled by an advisor that promises future returns.

da Vinci Says 

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Housel explains in his piece that as humans we have the perception that complexity insinuates a higher value proposition, yet the reality is that evolution teaches us that once nature finds a way to do more with less it will always choose that path. For wealth management, the “cast has been set” and the evolution of financial advice has brought forward the simplification of the investment process so that advisors can focus on providing the higher value proposition of personalized financial planning to their clients. There is no going back. For both clients and advisors, it is those who see the value in the simple over the complex that will reap the finest rewards.

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