Sleight of Hand

Satish Joshi

Not even the most sophisticated and expensive camera can match the width of the field of vision of a naked human eye. See the first photo below.

This is an extremely wide-angle photo which I constructed by stitching together 4 separate photos – My camera is incapable of covering this entire span in a single frame. And yet standing at the same spot my unaided eyes can see a far far wider vista than even this composite photo contains.

But this amazing human ability comes with a shortcoming which normally we are unaware of. For example, see the second photo.

Research has shown that this is in reality what our eyes actually record – a sharply focused small area in the center and blurry side views. It is our brains which construct the illusion that makes us believe that our entire field of vision is sharply in focus. But that is not the case and the consequence of this is – while we are broadly aware of what is happening in a wide area around us, we do not notice most of the details!

Why is this relevant? This is the phenomenon that every Magician or Card sharper or a rogue poker player or a clever marketer capitalizes on to deceive you. They make sure your attention is focused on something completely innocuous which allows them to play tricks on you because of your inability to spot the details on the periphery of the field of your awareness!

Forces of evolution have shaped all our sensory (not just vision) and cognitive systems to behave in this manner. We are broadly aware of a very wide range of events happening around us – so that threats or opportunities important for our survival may be noticed BUT are able to act on only those which are most immediate and relevant. Otherwise, the load of information input on our sensory systems will be so great that we will be incapable of any action. We are wired to be able to pay attention to and to do only one thing properly at a time. So, true multi-tasking is impossible – anybody who claims to do so, is either deluded or lying!

At the same time, there is a great deal of reluctance to accept this fact about us. And that is our Achilles Heel which clever marketers exploit to draw our attention away from the mediocrity of the product that is being foisted on us. They also know that the best way to deceive someone is not by telling lies or creating illusions but by in fact telling only the truth – just not the whole truth!

Recently, I saw an announcement of a new mutual fund which announced that it was the “Start of a movement, not just another fund launch”.

Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, especially because what was being announced was a “Retirement Fund”. Retirement is an extremely important step in everybody’s life. Unfortunately, in India there is a complete absence of any kind of social security infrastructure that a retiree can fall back on as a last resort in case her own provisions and resources prove inadequate. Retirement planning therefore requires a great deal of care and forethought.

The write-up that accompanied this particular announcement was perfect! It nailed down exactly how one should approach retirement planning. It highlighted that a retirement plan should not be just about putting aside some sum of money, but it should include planning for how you plan to spend your retirement years. What kind of lifestyle would you like to maintain? What activities would you like to engage in to fill your time? Because all of this costs money which has to be planned for.

It highlighted that with life expectancy continuously increasing, you might have almost as much time on your hand after retirement as you would have spent working and saving for retirement. It therefore even coined a new term to describe the post-retirement life and called it a life Renewment Plan! I think that is a wonderful term and correctly captures every nuance of how you should be viewing your retired life.

It was therefore clear that these guys know what they are talking about and therefore by implication, their solution to the problem of retirement planning MUST be the right solution!

Was it?

I deliberately stopped at this point while reading the announcement. Distracted myself by reading my other emails for the next 10 minutes and then read the last paragraph in which the solution was outlined. These 10 minutes acted like the sorbet they serve in formal dinners between two courses – The Sorbet is a dollop of finely shredded flavored ice shavings. Its primary function is to eliminate the taste of the previous course still lingering on your tongue, so that your palate can experience the true taste of the next course without contamination by the flavors of the previous course!

As a result of the “sorbet” of my emails, my mind was cleansed of the emotions which the excellent discussion about retirement which I had read until then. And I could digest the solution description dispassionately.

And that was important because the product turned out to be nothing more than a plain old equity fund with a 5-year lock-in (so in fact a worse deal than a regular equity fund for the investor) and had no connection what-so-ever with everything that was said about retirement before. All that excellent discussion about the “right way” to plan for retirement – sorry, “Renewment” of your life was a big smokescreen distracting me from noticing the real nature of the product itself!