ABCs of Bad Investor Behavior - part one
By now, you’ve probably heard the news: Your own behavioral 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 Behavioral Biases?
Most of the behavioral biases that influence your investment 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, behavioral 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 behavior,” 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.
Favoring emotions over evidence – disregarding decades of evidence-based advice on investment best practices.
What Can We Do About Them?
In this two-part “ABCs of Bad Investor Behavior,” we’ll offer an alphabetic introduction to investors’ most damaging behavioral biases, so you can more readily recognize and defend against them the next time they’re happening to you.
Here are a few additional ways you can defend against the behaviorally biased enemy within:
Anchor your investing in a solid plan – By anchoring your financial 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 behavioral finance, dedicated to serving your highest financial interests, and unafraid to show you what you cannot see for yourself is among your strongest defenses 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 behavioral 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!
Let's get started by introducing you to some of the self-inflicted biases that knock a number of investors off-course: anchoring, blind spot, confirmation and familiarity bias, fear, framing, greed and herd mentality.
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’ behavioral biases, but you cannot recognize your own.
When is it helpful? Blind spot bias helps you avoid over-analyzing 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 favor, 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 favors 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? Favor 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 good 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 labeled “90% fat-free” over those labeled “10% fat.” By narrowly framing the information (fat-free = good, fat = bad; never mind the rest), we fail to consider all the facts as a whole.
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 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: “[G]reed, 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? Mooove over, cows. You’ve got nothing on us humans, who instinctively recoil or rush headlong into excitement when we see others doing the same. “[T]he idea that people conform to the behavior of others is among the most accepted principles of psychology,” say 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.”
Well said, Mr. Buffett! We’ve got a lot more behavioral biases to cover in the next printed issue of real investing journal.