At the beginning of your investing journey, it’s common to fear the fluctuations of the stock market or the unpredictable shifts in the economy. But according to Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing: “the investor’s chief problem—and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.”
If you’re educating yourself on how to invest your money for the first time, books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow, The Little Book of Behavioral Investing, and Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism may already be on your reading list. But you shouldn't stop there. Many investors are surprised to learn that building wealth isn’t based purely on graphs and facts you can learn from books. In fact, psychology plays a huge role in the process. Cognitive psychology shows that the ways we manage our money has a lot to do with fear, excitement, greed, and personal biases.
We often imagine that investors are always rational and make consistent decisions based on new information. However, statistics show that only 20% of individual investors and 30% of institutional investors act rationally. In real life, investors are closer to behavioral finance, which means that they’re influenced by personal beliefs, impulses, and emotions. Even if you did your homework and researched the best investment strategies, emotional behaviors might prevent you from applying them correctly, so it's important to know some of the types of irrational behaviors that can sabotage you.
Five types of irrational behavior that can sabotage your investment portfolio are:
- Loss aversion
- Familiarity bias
1. Overconfidence, or the irrational exuberance trap
Studies have shown that people generally believe they are better than average, even when that’s not the case. After a series of successful investments, it's common for investors to assume they have it all figured out. But in reality, it takes years to become an experienced investor, and even the best investors make mistakes.
After the excitement of the first successful investment, it’s easy to become overconfident in your abilities and forget that chance plays a major role in the financial market. One of the most important lessons in investing is that you can never know too much, so no matter what your financial situation is, manage your portfolio prudently.
2. Loss aversion
The more you invest, the more you realize that loss is inevitable. After all, the higher the risk, the higher the reward. But while many investors accept risk in theory, they aren’t ready to deal with loss. This is called loss aversion, and it can prevent you from making a profit. According to researchers, investors experience the pain of a loss twice as strongly as a success, and they’ll do whatever they can to avoid it. As a result, when they notice that an investment is losing them money, whether that investment is a house, stock, or currency, they hold on to it for as long as possible to avoid the sense of finality of the loss. But that can turn out to be a huge mistake and end up losing you more money in the long run.
There are other, more effective ways to limit losses. For example, if you’re trading Forex, you can try copy trading, where live trading results are openly published online, and you can copy the actions of more experienced traders. Or if you’re trading stocks, you can simply set a stop-loss order. This is designed to limit your loss on a security position and make you sell the stock if it drops below a certain value. Of course, there will always be cases when a stock rebounds after an initial drop, but especially as a new trader, it’s wiser to protect your portfolio proactively.
3. Familiarity bias
Although diversification is a surefire way to minimize the risk of loss, gain more return opportunities, and safeguard your portfolio against the volatility of the market, research shows that investors tend to stick to assets they know and are comfortable with. This is called a familiarity bias, and it can be detrimental to your portfolio.
One study has shown that beginner investors in particular stick to domestic stocks, such as large telecom companies or factories in their area, without realizing that these businesses may be sinking. Or even worse, people invest only in their employer’s stock, and when that employer goes out of business, they lose both their job and their profit.
Diversifying can be a bit uncomfortable at first since it means researching stocks out of your comfort zone, but overcoming your familiarity bias is important if you want to protect your portfolio. Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. Instead, cast a wide net when choosing investments.
The ability to put things into perspective and estimate the impact that events will have in the long run is crucial in trading. However, this ability takes years to develop. When you're new to investing, you’re much more likely to inadvertently practice framing – a cognitive error where you have a narrow-minded approach and evaluate investments in isolation rather than as a cohesive whole.
According to Harry Markowitz’s modern portfolio theory, the assets in your portfolio shouldn’t stand alone. Instead, you should consider how they fit into your general portfolio and, when necessary, readjust the portfolio to reflect the new reality of the market. Cryptocurrency is a perfect example of framing. People who bought Bitcoin in its early days and held onto it are probably very happy, but if they didn’t invest in anything else in the meantime, their portfolio consists entirely of crypto now, and that’s a risky move.
5. Anchoring, or the confirmation trap
The confirmation trap, also known as anchoring or “the house money effect,” occurs when an investor relies relentlessly on a single investment, simply because it worked out well once. Another example of anchoring is when someone takes information from only one source because they were right the first time. But as any experienced investor will tell you, one positive experience is not a guarantee of future success. While learning from the past can sometimes help you understand future numbers, it can also prevent you from making fresh choices based on more relevant insights. To prevent anchoring from limiting your options, always try to view an investment opportunity from different perspectives, stay open-minded, and talk to several consultants before making a decision.