Investors make better decisions when they separate emotions from the thought process, but it’s practically impossible to achieve the goal in perfection. Regardless of how hard one tries, emotions will always be present. The best an investor, or anyone who makes decisions about finances, can achieve is awareness of the ways psychology prevents optimal decision making.
I took Kiplinger’s new investor psychology quiz, which focuses on the ways investors’ brains work against us as we try to make solid investment decisions. I answered seven of the eight questions correctly. The quiz was a good reminder of the brain’s subtle ways of changing perception and understanding of a situation.
Here are some interesting aspects of psychology that hinder the best decision-making.
We tend to remember better events that happened most recently. While at the peak of a bubble, like we’ve seen in real estate and stocks, several years of increases hide the reality that bubbles burst when high prices are not supported with fundamental value. Likewise, if you are asked to review your experiences at a restaurant, even if you have visit that restaurant for decades, your most recent experience at that venue will have the most weight.
Here’s how this can damage you: In the midst of a recession, it seems like the stock market keeps getting lower. All we see is bad news like financial scandals and corruption. We forget that over the long term, the stock market has been the best way to grow your money. So we abandon the stock market and miss out on those gains when the economy rebounds.
There are certain things we want to believe. Several years ago, a friend told me that “real estate always goes up.” There’s the recency effect again. Also, to believe that any investment can’t fail, we must ignore information that does not fit in with that philosophy. We seek out the studies or opinions that match our own as we look for confirmation.
Here’s how this can damage you: If you are looking to buy a house, it would be smart to look for reasons that the purchase will be financially sound over the long term. You will cite the usual positive aspects of home purchasing, including the fact that it’s an asset likely to appreciate and you receive a small tax break on mortgage interest, but you’ll likely ignore the fact that you’re likely to move out of the house before buying gains its advantage over renting.
Losing money is painful
The brain reacts to losing money the same way it reacts to pain. As pain is something we are built to avoid, we also try to avoid any potential for losing money. On the surface, this sounds like it would be a good thing, producing decisions that are more likely to side with gaining rather than losing. What really happens is that if we are presented with a situation where we have an even chance of winning $150 or losing $100, we won’t take the chance.
Here’s how this can damage you: The fear of losing money and experiencing the associated pain will keep us from taking risks. For people invested in the stock market, the pain experienced when reading those quarterly statements with negative returns causes many to sell at the wrong moment. They’ll miss out on the market’s rebound. While the stock market has a great track record over long periods of time, if you’re only invested when the market is decreasing, your performance will never match the stock market.
Want more? Here’s a list of cognitive biases. Just about everything pertains to financial decisions in some manner.
Photo credit: Martin Pettitt
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published October 21, 2009.