The ABCs of Behavioral Biases: Part I

published by:
TED TOAL, CFP®
May 18, 2020

The ABCs of Behavioral Biases-Introduction

“The investor’s chief problem – and even his worst enemy – is likely to be himself.” — Benjamin Graham (1894–1976)

Legendary economist and investor Benjamin Graham made his timeless observation decades ago. Yet, it reflects our enduring belief: 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 most significant rewards. Even so, 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 short-cuts. We depend on these short-cuts 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 merely 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 are 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, Ph.D., 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 multi-part “ABCs of Behavioral Biases” series, we’ll offer an alphabetic introduction to investors’ most damaging behavioral biases. By understanding these behaviors, 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 trading 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

• “The Behavioral Investor,” Daniel Crosby

• “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert

• “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman

• “The Undoing Project,” Michael Lewis

• “Nudge,” Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein

• “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, who is well-versed in behavioral finance, dedicated to serving your highest financial interests, and unafraid to show you what you cannot see, is among your most reliable defenses against all 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!

In our next piece, we’ll begin our A–Z introduction to many of the most common behavioral biases.

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At RCS Financial Planning, our mission is clear and straightforward: to provide personalized wealth planning and investment advice that minimizes our clients' financial concerns and maximizes their long-term peace of mind.. We firmly believe that a true financial partner shows you how to make the best choices for your future by always focusing on your needs first. And our fee-only service model ensures there is no conflict of interest.

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January 16th, 2020
What Plan Is Right For You?
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March 18th, 2020
Where To Start Saving?
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