Animal Spirits: Definition, Impact, and Market Insights


Animal spirits, a term coined by economist John Maynard Keynes, encapsulate the emotional drivers behind financial decisions in times of economic stress. This article explores the historical roots, its application in finance, and examples from market history. Discover how these animal spirits impact investor behavior and the economy, and why some critics question their validity in efficient markets.

Understanding animal spirits

Animal spirits, originating from the Latin “spiritus animalis,” represent the emotional and psychological factors influencing financial decision-making. Coined by John Maynard Keynes in 1936, the term delves into human behavior during economic uncertainty.

The historical roots of animal spirits

The concept of spiritus animalis dates back to 300 B.C., where it referred to the fluid in sensory activities and nerve endings. In literary culture, it denoted states of physical courage, gaiety, and exuberance, implying a connection between emotions and health.

Animal spirits in finance and economics

Today, animal spirits play a crucial role in market psychology and behavioral economics. These emotions—confidence, hope, fear, and pessimism—drive financial decision-making, impacting economic growth. Whether they lead to market bubbles or panic selling, understanding animal spirits is key to comprehending the dynamics of financial markets.

The role of emotion in business decisions

Keynes suggested that in times of economic upheaval, irrational thoughts guide individuals in pursuing their financial self-interest. He argued that estimating future yields in uncertain environments relies on intuition guided by these animal spirits.

Animal spirits enter the 21st century

In 2009, economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller reintroduced the term in their book, “Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism.” They identified five cognitive and psychological types of animal spirits—confidence, corruption, money illusion, fairness, and stories.

Impact of animal spirits on market bubbles

One notable example illustrating the impact of animal spirits on market bubbles is the Tulip Mania in 17th-century Holland. During this speculative frenzy, the prices of tulip bulbs reached extraordinary levels, driven not by fundamental value but by the irrational exuberance of investors. This historical event serves as a powerful case study showcasing how animal spirits can lead to inflated asset prices and eventual market crashes.

Pros and cons

Weigh the risks and benefits

Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks related to the impact of animal spirits on market bubbles.

  • Creates opportunities for quick profits during market booms.
  • Fosters innovation as investors seek new, potentially lucrative ventures.
  • Leads to market instability and crashes when the bubble bursts.
  • Encourages speculative behavior rather than rational investment decisions.

The evolution of animal spirits in the digital age

In the digital age, the dynamics of animal spirits have taken on new dimensions. The rapid dissemination of information through social media and online forums can amplify both positive and negative sentiments, leading to swift and sometimes exaggerated market reactions. This section explores how the interconnected world of digital communication influences the speed and intensity of animal spirits, affecting financial markets globally.

Examples of animal spirits in action

Examining historical events like the Dotcom Bubble and the Great Recession reveals how animal spirits influence market psychology. The Dotcom Bubble saw irrational exuberance driving asset prices to unsustainable levels, leading to a subsequent market crash. The lead-up to the 2008-09 financial crisis showcased how deceptive financial products and fraudulent practices triggered a sell-off, highlighting the impact of animal spirits on market behavior.

Critiques of animal spirits

While animal spirits provide insights into irrational market behavior, some economists critique the theory, asserting that markets are efficient and individual irrationality evens out. Others argue that central bank involvement and excessive regulation, not mass psychology, cause bubbles and market instability.

Real-world examples of animal spirits in finance

Examining specific instances in financial history provides concrete examples of how animal spirits shape market behavior.

The housing bubble and subprime mortgage crisis

The mid-2000s witnessed an unprecedented housing bubble fueled by overconfidence and optimism. Financial institutions embraced risky subprime mortgages, assuming housing prices would perpetually rise. When reality struck, and home values plummeted, it triggered a domino effect leading to the 2008 financial crisis. This episode vividly illustrates how misplaced confidence and exuberance can lead to catastrophic consequences.

The GameStop saga

The GameStop frenzy in 2021 is a contemporary example of animal spirits in action. Retail investors, driven by social media narratives and collective enthusiasm, rallied behind a struggling video game retailer’s stock. The resulting surge disrupted traditional market dynamics, showcasing the power of online communities and emotional contagion in driving financial decisions.

The behavioral economics perspective

Delving deeper into the realm of behavioral economics sheds light on how animal spirits contribute to our understanding of decision-making processes.

Prospect theory and loss aversion

Prospect theory, developed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, explores how individuals make decisions under uncertainty. Loss aversion, a key component, suggests that people fear losses more than they value equivalent gains. This psychological phenomenon heavily influences animal spirits, as fear and pessimism often drive decision-making during market downturns.

The role of social proof in investment decisions

Social proof, a concept in psychology, refers to the tendency to follow the actions of others in uncertain situations. In finance, this translates to herd behavior, where investors mimic the actions of their peers. Understanding how social proof amplifies animal spirits provides insights into market dynamics, explaining why trends often become self-fulfilling prophecies.


In conclusion, animal spirits remain a fascinating lens through which we understand the emotional underpinnings of financial decisions. From their historical roots to the complexities of modern markets, these spirits guide investor behavior in ways that transcend traditional economic models. Acknowledging their impact is crucial for anyone navigating the dynamic landscape of finance.

Frequently asked questions

What are some common examples of animal spirits in financial markets?

Explore real-world instances, such as the Dotcom Bubble and the Great Recession, to understand how animal spirits influence market psychology and behavior.

How do animal spirits impact the dynamics of market bubbles?

Dive deeper into the role of animal spirits in inflating asset prices and triggering market bubbles, examining both positive and negative consequences.

Are there critiques of the concept of animal spirits?

Learn about the arguments presented by economists who question the validity of animal spirits, asserting the efficiency of markets and alternative causes for market instability.

What is the significance of animal spirits in the digital age?

Explore how the evolution of digital communication has amplified the influence of animal spirits, affecting the speed and intensity of market reactions in the interconnected world.

How can one navigate the risks associated with animal spirits in the financial landscape?

Gain insights into navigating the challenges posed by animal spirits, including the risk of herd mentality and the potential impact on decision-making in the digital age.

Key takeaways

  • Animal spirits, coined by Keynes, reflect emotional drivers in financial decisions.
  • Understanding historical roots helps grasp the evolution of animal spirits in finance.
  • Examples like the Dotcom Bubble and the Great Recession showcase the impact on market psychology.
  • Critiques highlight debates around market efficiency and the role of central banks.
  • Regardless of critiques, animal spirits remain a significant factor in shaping market dynamics.
View Article Sources
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  2. Good Government and Animal Spirits -Wall Street Journal
  3. What Are Animal Spirits? Definition, Explanation & Examples – The Street
  4. A failure to control the animal spirits – Financial Times