Understanding our behavioral blind spots when it comes to investing

Investment decisions are among the most important life choices a person can make. They may determine where your children will be able to go to college, when you'll be able to retire, or what kind of lifestyle you'll enjoy after you retire.

Unfortunately, these are also some of the most difficult choices a person can make. In order to make sound decisions, we need to be aware of our own psychological blind spots. These can lead us to make persistently poor financial choices - errors that over time can do significant damage to our portfolios.

Chains of Thought

Traditional financial theory assumes all investment decisions are made rationally, based on the best available information. In theory, the result is an efficient market - one in which prices accurately reflect fundamentals, such as earnings and interest rates.

However, it's not always easy to reconcile financial theory with financial reality. Investors often appear determined to ignore the fundamentals, both in bidding stock prices up and slamming them back down again.

"In many important ways, real financial markets do not resemble the ones we would imagine if we only read finance textbooks," notes Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading behavioral finance researcher.

It's not that investors are totally irrational, Thaler and other researchers argue, but rather that their thinking can be influenced by mental biases. These quirks can lead them to make choices that appear intuitively correct, but produce poor performance.

• Overconfidence. Investors generally assume they know more than they actually do. They also tend to remember previous investment decisions in ways that exaggerate their own foresight. This can lead to overly aggressive trading and a reluctance to admit - and correct - mistakes.

• Mental accounting. Financial experts often advise investors to take their entire portfolio into account when making investment decisions. Yet, many investors unconsciously divide their wealth into separate pots. If they have a big gain, for example, they may think of it as essentially "free" money and take greater risks with it than they would with their "own" money.

• Anchoring. Logically, investors should always base their decisions on current prices and expectations. Instead, they often become fixed on past events, such as the price they paid for a particular stock. Investors will often refuse to sell at a price lower than that - even when it makes more sense to accept their loss and invest their remaining money elsewhere.

• Framing. How people view a decision often depends on how their choices are presented. For example, in one study researchers asked participants how much they would be willing to pay to avoid a one-in-a-thousand chance of being killed. The average answer was $1,000. Participants were then asked how much they would demand to accept the same risk. This time, the answers ranged as high as $200,000. From an economic point of view, the two questions were identical, but subjects saw them very differently.

• Loss Aversion. In a completely rational market, the risk of loss and the possibility of gain should carry equal weight. However, on average investors place twice as much importance on avoiding a loss as they do on making a gain. In other words, to accept a 50 percent chance of losing $100, most people will demand at least a 50 percent chance of earning $200.

The Value of Advice

Are investors doomed to repeat these mistakes? Maybe not. Some studies have shown that the more investors know about the investment process, the less likely they are to be misled by behavioral biases.

This is one reason we encourage investors to develop prudent, long-term investment strategies that take into account their goals and tolerance for risk. While this doesn't guarantee investment success, it can at least reduce the risk of being led astray by behavioral blind spots. That's something even the smartest investor might want to keep in mind.

For more information, e-mail william.a.creekbaum@smithbarney.com or call 689-8700.

Smith Barney does not provide tax and/or legal advice. Please consult your tax and/or legal advisors for such advice.

• William Creekbaum, MBA, CFP, a Washoe Valley resident, is senior investment management consultant of SmithBarney, a financial services firm serving Northern Nevada at 6005 Plumas Street, Ste. 200 Reno, NV 89509.


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