Our Brain And Our Behavior, Part Three
Do you ever do something based on a recent experience, even though you know it might not be the best choice? Or do you ever think to yourself “you know, I’m a better driver than most”? How about watching the market’s movements and subtly measuring your diversified portfolio’s recent returns against a very narrow comparison such as the general market? If you’re like most of us and answered yes to any of these, we’re going to explore how these behaviors can potentially take us off track when it comes to our finances.
This is the final article in our three-part series, where we’ve been exploring the most common ways that our brains can be wired to help us in life—but also can hurt us as investors. Today, let’s take a few minutes to cover our last four: overconfidence, pattern recognition, recency, and tracking error regret.
What is it? If we asked you to raise your hand if you think you’re a better-than-average driver, would you? What if we asked a group of people? If we did, I’d be willing to bet that almost all of the hands go up. Statistically speaking, however, only half can actually be better than average, right? This is overconfidence at it’s best.
When is it helpful? In “Your Money & Your Brain,” Jason 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. We often need this nudge from our brain to take a positive step forward.
When is it harmful? While overconfidence can be generally beneficial, it becomes dangerous when you’re investing. Interacting with a host of other biases we reviewed (such as greed, confirmation bias, and familiarity bias), overconfidence inflates our belief that we can consistently stay ahead of (or avoid falling behind) 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 long-term returns, instead of trying to outsmart it and paying the price.
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, our brains have been conditioned 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? 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 recently published a 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 if 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 news and it’s many glittering distractions and focusing instead on their long-term goals.
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 floodplain.
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.
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.
We’ve reached the end of our overview of the behavioral biases that most frequently lead investors astray. We hope this has helped you to become a better investor, and if we can help in any way let us know by contacting us today.