By now, you’ve probably heard the news: Your own behavioural biases are often the greatest threat to your financial well-being. As investors, we leap before we look. We stay when we should go. We cringe at the very risks that are expected to generate our greatest rewards. All the while, we rush into nearly every move, only to fret and regret them long after the deed is done.
Why Do We Have Behavioural Biases?
Most of the behavioural biases that influence your investment management decisions come from myriad mental shortcuts we depend on to think more efficiently and act more effectively in our busy lives.
Usually (but not always!) these short-cuts work well for us. They can be powerful allies when we encounter physical threats that demand reflexive reaction, or even when we’re simply trying to stay afloat in the rushing roar of deliberations and decisions we face every day.
What Do They Do To Us?
As we’ll cover in this series, those same survival-driven instincts that are otherwise so helpful can turn deadly in investing. They overlap with one another, gang up on us, confuse us and contribute to multiple levels of damage done.
Friend or foe, behavioural biases are a formidable force. Even once you know they’re there, you’ll probably still experience them. It’s what your brain does with the chemically induced instincts that fire off in your head long before your higher functions kick in. They trick us into wallowing in what financial author and neurologist William J. Bernstein, MD, PhD, describes as a “Petrie dish of financially pathologic behaviour,” including:
- Counterproductive trading – incurring more trading expenses than are necessary, buying when prices are high and selling when they’re low.
- Excessive risk-taking – rejecting the “risk insurance” that global diversification provides, instead over-concentrating in recent winners and abandoning recent losers.
- Favouring emotions over evidence – disregarding decades of evidence-based advice on investment best practices.
What Can We Do About Them?
Here are a few additional ways you can defend against the behaviourally biased enemy within:
Anchor your investing in a solid plan – By anchoring your trading activities in a carefully constructed plan (with predetermined asset allocations that reflect your personal goals and risk tolerances), you’ll stand a much better chance of overcoming the bias-driven distractions that rock your resolve along the way.
Increase your understanding – Don’t just take our word for it. Here is an entertaining and informative library on the fascinating relationship between your mind and your money:
- “Predictably Irrational,” Dan Ariely
- “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes,” Gary Belsky, Thomas Gilovich
- “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert
- “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman
- “The Undoing Project,” Michael Lewis
- “Your Money & Your Brain,” Jason Zweig
Don’t go it alone – Just as you can’t see your face without the benefit of a mirror, your brain has a difficult time “seeing” its own biases. Having an objective advisor well-versed in behavioural finance, dedicated to serving your highest financial interests, and unafraid to show you what you cannot see for yourself is among your strongest defences against all of the biases we’ll present throughout the rest of this series.
As you learn and explore, we hope you’ll discover: You may be unable to prevent your behavioural biases from staging attacks on your financial resolve. But, forewarned is forearmed. You stand a much better chance of thwarting them once you know they’re there!
What is it? Anchoring bias occurs when you fix on or “anchor” your decisions to a reference point, whether or not it’s a valid one.
When is it helpful? An anchor point can be helpful when it is relevant and contributes to good decision-making. For example, if you’ve set a 10 pm curfew for your son or daughter and it’s now 9:55 pm, your offspring would be wise to panic a bit, and step up the homeward pace.
When is it harmful? In investing, people often anchor on the price they paid when deciding whether to sell or hold a security: “I paid £11/share for this stock and now it’s only worth £9/share. I’ll hold off selling it until I’ve broken even.” This is an example of anchoring bias in disguise. Evidence-based investing informs us, the best time to sell a holding is when it’s no longer serving your ideal total portfolio, as prescribed by your investment plans. What you paid is irrelevant to that decision, so anchoring on that arbitrary point creates a dangerous distraction.
Blind spot Bias
What is it? Blind spot bias occurs when you can objectively assess others’ behavioural biases, but you cannot recognize your own.
When is it helpful? Blind spot bias helps you avoid over-analysing your every imperfection, so you can get on with your one life to live. It helps you tell yourself, “I can do this,” even when others may have their doubts.
When is it harmful? It’s hard enough to root out all your deep-seated biases once you’re aware of them, let alone the ones you remain blind to. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes (emphasis ours): “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (Hint: This is where second opinions from an independent advisor can come in especially handy.)
What is it? We humans love to be right and hate to be wrong. This manifests as confirmation bias, which tricks us into being extra sympathetic to information that supports our beliefs and especially suspicious of – or even entirely blind to – conflicting evidence.
When is it helpful? When it’s working in our favour, confirmation bias helps us build on past insights to more readily resolve new, similar challenges. Imagine if you otherwise had to approach each new piece of information with no opinion, mulling over every new idea from scratch. While you’d be a most open-minded person, you’d also be a most indecisive one.
When is it harmful? Once we believe something – such as an investment is a good/bad idea, or a market is about to tank or soar – we want to keep believing it. To remain convinced, we’ll tune out news that contradicts our beliefs and tune into that which favours them. We’ll discount facts that would change our mind, find false affirmation in random coincidences, and justify fallacies and mistaken assumptions that we would otherwise recognize as inappropriate. And we’ll do all this without even knowing it’s happening. Even stock analysts may be influenced by this bias.
What is it? Familiarity bias is another mental shortcut we use to more quickly trust (or more slowly reject) an object that is familiar to us.
When is it helpful? Do you cheer for your home-town team? Speak more openly with friends than strangers? Favour a job applicant who (all else being equal) has been recommended by one of your best employees? Congratulations, you’re making good use of familiarity bias.
When is it harmful? Considerable evidence tells us that a broad, globally diversified approach best enables us to capture expected market returns while managing the risks involved. Yet studies like this one have shown investors often instead overweight their allocations to familiar vs. foreign investments. We instinctively assume familiar holdings are safer or better, even though, clearly, we can’t all be correct at once. We also tend to be more comfortable than we should be bulking up on company stock in our retirement plan.
What is it? You know what fear is, but it may be less obvious how it works. As Jason Zweig describes in “Your Money & Your Brain,” if your brain perceives a threat, it spews chemicals like corticosterone that “flood your body with fear signals before you are consciously aware of being afraid.” Some suggest this isn’t really “fear,” since you don’t have time to think before you act. Call it what you will, this bias can heavily influence your next moves – for better or worse.
When is it helpful? Of course, there are times you probably should be afraid, with no time for studious reflection about a life-saving act. If you are reading this today, it strongly suggests you and your ancestors have made effective use of these sorts of survival instincts many times over.
When is it harmful? Zweig and others have described how our brain reacts to a plummeting market in the same way it responds to a physical threat like a rattlesnake. While you may be well-served to leap before you look at a snake, doing the same with your investments can bite you. Also, our financial fears are often misplaced. We tend to overcompensate for more memorable risks (like a flash crash), while ignoring more subtle ones that can be just as harmful or much easier to prevent (like inflation, eroding your spending power over time).
What is it? “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman defines the effects of framing as follows: “Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions.” For example, he explains how consumers tend to prefer cold cuts labelled “90% fat-free” over those labelled “10% fat.” By narrowly framing the information (fat-free = good, fat = bad; never mind the rest), we fail to consider all the facts.
When is it helpful? Have you ever faced an enormous project or goal that left you feeling overwhelmed? Framing helps us take on seemingly insurmountable challenges by focusing on one step at a time until, over time, the job is done. In this context, it can be a helpful assistant.
When is it harmful? To achieve your personal financial planning goals, you’ve got to do more than score isolated victories in the market; you’ve got to “win the war.” As UCLA’s Shlomo Benartzi describes in a Wall Street Journal piece, this demands strategic planning and unified portfolio management, with individual holdings considered within the greater context. Investors who instead succumb to narrow framing often end up falling off-course and incurring unnecessary costs by chasing or fleeing isolated investments.
What is it? Like fear, greed requires no formal introduction. In investing, the term usually refers to our tendency to (greedily) chase hot stocks, sectors or markets, hoping to score larger-than-life returns. In doing so, we ignore the oversized risks typically involved as well.
When is it helpful? In Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko (based on the notorious real-life trader Ivan Boesky) makes a valid point … to a point: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. … Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.” In other words, there are times when a little greed – call it ambition – can inspire greater achievements.
When is it harmful? In our cut-throat markets (where you’re up against the Boeskys of the world), greed and fear become a two-sided coin that you flip at your own peril. Heads or tails, both are accompanied by chemical responses to stimuli we’re unaware of and have no control over. Overindulging in either extreme leads to unnecessary trading at inopportune times.
What is it? Move over, cows. You’ve got nothing on us humans, who instinctively recoil or rush headlong into excitement when we see others doing the same. “The idea that people conform to the behaviour of others is among the most accepted principles of psychology,” says Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich in “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.”
When is it helpful? If you’ve ever gone to a hot new restaurant, followed a fashion trend, or binged on a hit series, you’ve been influenced by herd mentality. “Mostly such conformity is a good thing, and it’s one of the reasons that societies are able to function,” say Belsky and Gilovich. It helps us create order out of chaos in traffic, legal and governmental systems alike.
When is it harmful? Whenever a piece of the market is on a hot run or in a cold plunge, herd mentality intensifies our greedy or fearful chain reaction to the random event that generated the excitement to begin with. Once the dust settles, those who have reacted to the near-term noise are usually the ones who end up overpaying for the “privilege” of chasing or fleeing temporary trends instead of staying the course toward their long-term goals. As Warren Buffett has famously said, “Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”
What is it? In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman credits Baruch Fischhoff for demonstrating hindsight bias – the “I knew it all along” effect – when he was still a student. Kahneman describes hindsight bias as a “robust cognitive illusion” that causes us to believe our memory is correct when it is not. For example, say you expected a candidate to lose, but she ended up winning. When asked afterward how strongly you predicted the actual outcome, you’re likely to recall giving it higher odds than you originally did. This seems like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it really does happen!
When is it helpful? Similar to blind spot bias (one of the first biases we covered) hindsight bias helps us assume a more comforting, upbeat outlook in life. As “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes” authors Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich describe it, “We humans have developed sneaky habits to look back on ourselves in pride.” Sometimes, this causes no harm, and may even help us move past prior setbacks.
When is it harmful? Hindsight bias is hazardous to investors, since your best financial decisions come from realistic assessments of market risks and rewards. As Kahneman explains, hindsight bias “leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad.” If a high-risk investment happens to outperform, but you conveniently forget how risky it truly was, you may load up on too much of it and not be so lucky moving forward. On the flip side, you may too quickly abandon an underperforming holding, deceiving yourself into dismissing it as a bad bet to begin with.
What is it? “Loss aversion” is a fancy way of saying we often fear losing more than we crave winning, which leads to some interesting results when balancing risks and rewards. For example, in “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert describes: “Most of us would refuse a bet that gives us an 85 percent chance of doubling our life savings and a 15 percent chance of losing it.” Even though the odds favour a big win, imagining that slight chance that you might go broke leads most people to decide it’s just not worth the risk.
When is it helpful? To cite one illustration of when loss aversion plays in your favour, consider the home and auto insurance you buy every year. It’s unlikely your house will burn to the ground, your car will be stolen, or an act of negligence will cost you your life’s savings in court. But loss aversion reminds us that unlikely does not mean impossible. It still makes good sense to protect against worst-case scenarios when we know the recovery would be very painful indeed.
When is it harmful? One-way loss aversion plays against you is if you decide to sit in cash or bonds during bear markets – or even when all is well, but a correction feels overdue. The evidence demonstrates that you are expected to end up with higher long-term returns by at least staying put, if not bulking up on stocks when they are “cheap.” And yet, the potential for future loss can frighten us into abandoning our carefully planned course toward the likelihood of long-term returns.
What is it? If you’ve ever treated one dollar differently from another when assessing its worth, that’s mental accounting at play. For example, if you assume inherited money must be more responsibly managed than money you’ve won in a raffle, you’re engaging in mental accounting.
When is it helpful? In his early paper, “Mental Accounting Matters,” Richard Thaler (who is credited for having coined the term), describes how people use mental accounting “to keep track of where their money is going, and to keep spending under control.” For example, say you set aside £250/month for a fun family outing. This does not actually obligate you to spend the money as planned or to stick to your budget. But by effectively assigning this function to thatmoney, you’re better positioned to enjoy your leisure time, without overdoing it.
When is it harmful? While mental accounting can foster good saving and spending habits, it plays against you if you instead let it undermine your rational investing. Say, for example, you’re emotionally attached to a stock you inherited from a beloved aunt. You may be unwilling to unload it, even if reason dictates that you should. You’ve just mentally accounted your aunt’s bequest into a place that detracts from rather than contributes to your best financial interests.
What is it? Sometimes, good or bad outcomes are the result of good or bad decisions; other times (such as when you try to forecast future market movements), it’s just random luck. Outcome bias is when you mistake that luck as skill.
When is it helpful? This may be one bias that is never really helpful in the long run. If you’ve just experienced good or bad luck rather than made a smart or dumb decision, when wouldn’t you want to know the difference, so you can live and learn?
When is it harmful? As Kahneman describes in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” outcome bias “makes it almost impossible to evaluate a decision properly – in terms of the beliefs that were reasonable when the decision was made.” It causes us to be overly critical of sound decisions if the results happen to disappoint. Conversely, it generates a “halo effect,” assigning undeserved credit “to irresponsible risk seekers …who took a crazy gamble and won.” In short, especially when it’s paired with hindsight bias, this is dangerous stuff in largely efficient markets. The more an individual happens to come out ahead on lucky bets, the more they may mistakenly believe there’s more than just luck at play.