The 8 Most Fascinating Things I Read This Week

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Happy Friday! There are more good news articles, commentaries, and analyst reports on the Web every week than anyone could read in a month. Here are the eight most fascinating ones I read this week.

1.You're so biased
Business Insider put together an awesome collection of 61 behavioral biases we fall victim to. Some of my favorites:

  • Attentional bias: "When someone focuses on only one or two choices despite there being several possible outcomes."
  • Backfire effect: "When you reject evidence that contradicts your point of view or statement, even if you know it's true."
  • Outcome bias: "Judging a decision based on the outcome over the quality of the decision when it was made. This is not accounting for the role luck plays in outcomes."

2. Greece lightning                                                                             
The Pew Research Center published a chart showing how European countries feel about each other. Presented without comment:

BritainGermany
FranceGermany
GermanyGermany
SpainGermany
ItalyGermany
GreeceGreece
PolandGermany
Czech Rep.Germany

3. Advice to students: Become a charlatan
The blog Stumbling and Mumbling posted a great summary of a study by Nattavudh Powdthavee. It starts with a piece of advice: "[M]y advice to graduates wanting a lucrative career would be: become a charlatan. There has always been a strong demand for witchdoctors, seers, quacks, pundits, mediums, tipsters and forecasters."

Powdthavee's study went like this. A group of students made bets on the toss of a coin. Each got five envelopes containing a prediction for the outcome of the coin toss. "Before the relevant toss, they could pay to see the prediction. After the toss, they could freely see the prediction," the blog writes.

Here's the punch line: "Subjects who saw just two correct predictions were 15 percentage points more likely to buy a prediction for the third toss than subjects who got a right and wrong prediction in the earlier rounds. Subjects who saw four successive correct tips were 28 percentage points more likely to buy the prediction for the fifth round."

Gullibility: It's real, folks.

4. Good for nothing debt
I wrote this morning about how the student-loan bubble might not be as bad as it looks. Time elaborates on a Washington Post report that offers a different view:

According to the WaPo's analysis of government data, nearly 30% of Americans who borrowed for college wound up dropping out. In 2001, by contrast, 23% of those with student loans became dropouts. Unsurprisingly, it's the dropouts who are "most likely to default on their loans, falling behind at a rate four times that of graduates."

5. Oil's next hurrah                    Business Insider reports on a meeting money manager Barton Biggs had with an unnamed but seemingly well-connected Saudi businessman. As Biggs writes, the source explained:

The [Saudi] ruling council has decided that over the next two years we have a brief window of opportunity to impoverish and weaken [Iran and Iraq] by driving down the price of oil. Iraq and Iran need to produce and sell their oil at well over one hundred dollars a barrel. In the next twenty four months, we will gradually increase our production with the objective of breaking the price of crude down to sixty dollars a barrel.

This could, of course, be a wholly unfounded rumor. But it shows how unpredictable geopolitical risk can be. Through it all, I still think big global oil giants like ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) and Chevron (NYS: CVX) offer a great opportunity for long-term investors.

6. Heavy reliance
According toTheWall Street Journal, 49.1% of Americans now live in a household "where at least one member received some type of government benefit in the first quarter of 2011." That's up from 30% in the 1980s, and 44.4% in late 2008.

The Journal elaborates:

The increase in recent years is likely due in large part to the lingering effects of the recession. As of early 2011, 15% of people lived in a household that received food stamps, 26% had someone enrolled in Medicaid and 2% had a member receiving unemployment benefits. Families doubling up to save money or pool expenses also is likely leading to more multigenerational households. But even without the effects of the recession, there would be a larger reliance on government.

7. Deep underwater
Housing website Zillow.com reports that 31% of U.S. homes with a mortgage are now "underwater," or owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth. That's up from 28% a year ago and 22% the year before that.

Zillow created a neat map showing the percentage of homes underwater by county throughout the entire country. Skimming through it shows massive disparities: 71% of homes are underwater in Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), compared with less than 6% in parts of North Dakota and Montana.

8. One way to get rich
Bloomberg tells the story of Sherry Hunt, a midlevel Citigroup (NYS: C) employee who blew the whistle on the bank's shady mortgage practices and walked away with a $31 million reward for her effort. 

Similarly, a former Countrywide employee was recently granted a $14.5 million reward for blowing the whistle on parent company Bank of America (NYS: BAC) . For perspective, that's about seven times what CEO Brian Moynihan earned in 2010.

Enjoy your weekend.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorMorgan Houselowns shares of Exxon, Chevron, and B of A preferred. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel.The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Citigroup. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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