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ABCs of Bad Investing Behavior - part two

ABCs of Bad Investing Behavior - part two

In January, we began this series with bad investor behaviors A-H (hindsight didn't fit). Here is the rest of the the emotional issues succesful real investors must overcome. 

Hindsight

What is it? In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” 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 Belsky and 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. 

Loss Aversion

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,” Gilbert describes: “[M]ost 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 favor 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 favor, 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. 

Mental Accounting

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,” Thaler (who is credited for having coined the term), describes how people use mental accounting “to keep trace 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 that money, 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. 

Outcome Bias

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. 

Overconfidence

What is it? No sooner do we recover from one debilitating bias, our brain can whipsaw us in an equal but opposite direction. For example, we’ve already seen how fear on the one hand and greed on the other can knock investors off course either way. Similarly, overconfidence is the flip side of loss aversion. Once we’ve got something, we don’t want to lose it and will overvalue it compared to its going rate. But when we are pursuing fame or fortune, or even going about our daily lives, we tend to be overconfident about our odds of success. 

When is it helpful? In “Your Money & Your Brain,” Zweig cites several sources that describe overconfidence in action and why it’s the norm rather than the exception in our lives. “How else could we ever get up the nerve to ask somebody out on a date, go on a job interview, or compete in a sport?” asks Zweig, and adds: “There is only one major group whose members do not consistently believe they are above average: people who are clinically depressed.” 

When is it harmful? While overconfidence can be generally beneficial, it becomes dangerous when you’re investing. Interacting with a host of other biases (such as greed, confirmation bias and familiarity bias) overconfidence puffs up our belief that we can consistently beat the market by being smarter or luckier than average. In reality, when it’s you, betting against the trillions and trillions of other dollars at play in our global markets, it’s best to be brutally realistic about how to patiently participate in the market’s expected returns, instead of trying to go for broke – potentially literally. 

Pattern Recognition

What is it? Is that a zebra, a cheetah or a light breeze moving through the grass? Since prehistoric times when our ancestors depended on getting the right answer, right away, evolution has been conditioning our brains to find and interpret patterns – or else. That’s why, our pattern-seeking impulses tend to treat even random events (like 10 coin flips, all heads) as if they’re orderly outcomes suggesting a predictive pattern. “Just as nature abhors a vacuum, people hate randomness,” says Zweig, as a result of our brain’s dopamine-induced “prediction addiction.” 

When is it helpful? Had our ancestors failed at pattern recognition, we wouldn’t be here to speak of it, and we still make good use of it today. For example, we stop at red lights and go when they’re green. Is your spouse or partner giving you “that look”? You know just what it means before they’ve said a single word. And whether you enjoy a good jigsaw puzzle, Sudoku, or Rubik’s Cube, you’re giving your pattern recognition skills a healthy workout. 

When is it harmful? Speaking of seeing red, Zweig published this fascinating piece on how simply presenting financial numbers in red instead of black can make investors more fearful and risk-averse. That’s a powerful illustration of how pattern recognition can influence us – even when the so-called pattern (red = danger) is a red herring. Is any given stream of breaking financial news a predictive pattern worth pursuing? Or is it simply a deceptive mirage? Given how hard it is to tell the difference (until hindsight reveals the truth), investors are best off ignoring the market’s many glittering distractions and focusing instead on their long-term goals.  

Recency

What is it? Recency causes you to pay more attention to your most recent experiences, and to downplay the significance of long-term conditions. For example, in “Nudge,” Thaler and Sunstein observe: “If floods have not occurred in the immediate past, people who live on floodplains are far less likely to purchase insurance.” That’s recency, tricking people into ascribing more importance to the lack of recent flooding than to the bigger context of being located on a flood plain. 

When is it helpful? In “Stumbling on Happiness,” Gilbert describes how we humans employ recency to accurately interpret otherwise ambiguous situations. Say, for example, someone says to you, “Don’t run into the bank!” Whether your most recent experience has been floating down a river or driving toward the commerce district helps you quickly decide whether to paddle harder or walk more carefully through the door. 

When is it harmful? Of course buying high and selling low is exactly the opposite of investors’ actual aspirations. And yet, no matter how many times our capital markets have moved through their bear-and-bull cycles, recency causes droves of investors to stumble every time. By reacting to the most recent jolts instead of remaining positioned as planned for long-term expected growth, they end up piling into high-priced hot holdings and locking in losses by selling low during the downturns. They allow recency to get the better of them … and their most rational, evidence-based investment decisions. 

Sunk Cost Fallacy

What is it? Sunk cost fallacy makes it harder for us to lose something when we also face losing the time, energy or money we’ve already put into it. In “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes,” Belsky and Gilovich describe: “[Sunk cost fallacy] is the primary reason most people would choose to risk traveling in a dangerous snowstorm if they had paid for a ticket to an important game or concert, while passing on the trip if they had been given the ticket for free.” You’re missing or attending the same event either way. But if a sunk cost is involved, it somehow makes it more difficult to let go, even if you would be better off without it. 

When is it helpful? When a person, project or possession is truly worth it to you, sunk costs – the blood, sweat, tears and/or legal tender you’ve already poured into them – can help you take a deep breath and soldier on. Otherwise, let’s face it. There might be those days when you’d be tempted to help your kids pack their “run away from home” bags yourself. 

When is it harmful? Falling for financial sunk cost fallacy is so common, there’s even a cliché for it: throwing good money after bad. There’s little harm done if the toss is a small one, such as attending a prepaid event you’d rather have skipped. But in investing, adopting a sunk cost mentality – “I can’t unload this until I’ve at least broken even” – can cost you untold real dollars by blinding you from selling at a loss when it is otherwise the right thing to do. The most rational investment strategy acknowledges we cannot control what already has happened to our investments; we can only position ourselves for future expected returns, according to the best evidence available to us at the time. 

Tracking Error Regret

What is it? If you’ve ever decided the grass is greener on the other side, you’ve experienced tracking error regret – that gnawing envy you feel when you compare yourself to external standards and you wish you were more like them. 

When is it helpful? If you’re comparing yourself to a meaningful benchmark, tracking error-regret can be a positive force, spurring you to try harder. Say, for example, you’re a professional athlete and you’ve been repeatedly losing to your peers. You may be prompted to embrace a new fitness regimen, rethink your equipment, or otherwise strive to improve your game. 

When is it harmful? If you’ve structured your investment portfolio to reflect your goals and risk tolerances, it’s important to remember that your near-term results may frequently march out of tune with “typical” returns … by design. It can be deeply damaging to your long-range plans if you compare your own performance to irrelevant, apples-to-oranges benchmarks such as the general market, the latest popular trends, or your neighbor’s seemingly greener financial grass. Stop playing the shoulda, woulda, coulda game, chasing past returns you wish you had received based on random outperformance others (whose financial goals differ from yours) may have enjoyed. You’re better off tending to your own fertile possibilities, guided by personalized planning, evidence-based investing, and accurate benchmark comparisons. 

Recap and Next Steps

We’ll wrap the ABCs of Behavioral Biases by repeating our initial premise: Your own behavioral biases are often the greatest threat to your financial well-being. We hope we’ve demonstrated the many ways this single statement can play out, and how often our survival-mode brains trick us into making financial calls that foil our own best interests. 

But don’t take our word for it. Just as we turn to robust academic evidence to guide our disciplined investment strategy, so too do we turn to the work of behavioral finance scholars, to understand and employ effective defenses against your most aggressive behavioral biases.

 

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