Let’s continue our alphabetic tour of common behavioral biases that distract otherwise rational investors from making best choices about their wealth. There are so many investment-impacting behavioral biases, we could probably identify at least one for nearly every letter in the alphabet. 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.” We continue with the most significant biases looking at: fear, greed, hindsight, loss aversion, mental accounting, outcome bias and recency.
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? 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? 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: “[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.
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,” Nobel laureate Richard 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.
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.
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,” Nobel laureate Richard Thaler and co-author Cass 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,” Daniel 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.
You’re now more than halfway through our alphabetic series of behavioral biases. 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.