What Are Animal Spirits? Animal spirits And Why It Matters In Business

The term “animal spirits” is derived from the Latin spiritus animalis, loosely translated as “the breath that awakens the human mind”. As far back as 300 B.C., animal spirits were used to explain psychological phenomena such as hysterias and manias. Animal spirits also appeared in literature where they exemplified qualities such as exuberance, gaiety, and courage.  Thus, the term “animal spirits” is used to describe how people arrive at financial decisions during periods of economic stress or uncertainty.

Understanding animal spirits

In an economic context, the term was first coined by British economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 publication The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. In the publication, Keynes equates animal spirits with the emotions, instincts, and proclivities that impact human behavior and by extension, consumer confidence. Keynes used the term to describe the gloom and despondence that caused the Great Depression and the subsequent shift in psychology that accompanied the recovery.

Today, animal spirits encompass the psychological and emotional factors that drive investors to take action in volatile markets. Many of Keynes’ original insights have formed the basis of market psychology and behavioral economics. 

Animal spirits in finance and economics

Keynes argued that economic performance was largely mental and not necessarily rational but emotional. Performance was also dictated by the level of investor confidence in the market.

When animal spirits are low, fear and pessimism cause low confidence which can hinder economic growth. This may occur regardless of whether economic or market conditions are fundamentally sound. 

When animal spirits are high, hope and optimism cause high confidence which encourages economic growth. Market prices will soar, but again, the confidence level of the market may contradict the raw economic or market data. 

In a 2009 book titled How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, authors George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Schiller suggested stories and storytelling were the drivers of market emotion and sentiment.

Stories, they argued, were fundamental to the way people think. Some research suggests successful marriages are attributable to the narrative each person tells about the relationship. What’s more, political leaders may live or die by the stories they tell voters. More to the point, stories inspire confidence (or a lack thereof) in economics. 

In the next section, we’ll take a look at how these stories have influenced some of the biggest financial disasters in recorded history.

Animal spirits examples

Animal spirits can at least partly explain financial disasters including:

  • The Dotcom Bubble – a financial collapse instituted by the story of a new era heralded by the internet. Online company valuations rose to unprecedented levels thanks to the irrational exuberance and greed of investors. 
  • The Wall Street Crash of 1929 – during the 1920s, stories of big market wins caused mass speculation in stocks. Many inexperienced investors borrowed money from brokers to purchase shares which caused mass bankruptcies when the market collapsed.
  • The Great Recession – investor confidence plummeted after it was discovered that collateralized debt obligations were found to be deceptive and fraudulent. Investment firms once considered robust went bankrupt and were associated with deceitful and corruptive practices. This narrative paralyzed surviving lenders who could not be certain that they would be repaid and hampered otherwise effective government policies to address the crisis.

Key takeaways:

  • The term “animal spirits” is used to describe how people arrive at financial decisions during periods of economic stress or uncertainty. The phrase was coined in the economic context by British economist John Maynard Keynes.
  • Animal spirits describe the level of confidence in financial markets and their associated emotions. Fear and pessimism cause low market confidence, while hope and optimism cause high market confidence. In either scenario, there may be a disconnect between market sentiment and market or economic fundamentals.
  • Authors George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Schiller suggest stories and storytelling are the drivers of market emotion and sentiment. Stories explain investor behavior during financial crises such as The Dotcom Bubble and the Great Recession.

Read Next: Financial Bubbles.

Connected Business Concepts

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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