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Mind Over Money


Emotion often drives our financial decisions, even when logic should.


When we go to the grocery store, we seldom shop on logic alone. We may not even buy on price. We buy one type of yogurt over another because of brand loyalty, or because one brand has more appealing packaging than another. We buy five bananas because they are on sale for 29 cents this week – the bargain is right there; why not seize the opportunity? We pick up that gourmet ice cream that everyone gets – if everyone buys it, it must be a winner.


As casual and arbitrary as these decisions may be, they are remarkably like the decisions many investors make in the financial markets.


A degree of emotion also factors into many of our financial choices. There is even a discipline devoted to how our emotions affect our financial decisions: behavioral finance. Examples of emotionally driven financial behaviors are all around us, especially in the investment markets. Behavior #1: Believing future performance relates to past performance. In truth, there is no relation. If an investment yields 8-10% for six consecutive years, that does not mean it will yield 8-10% next year. Still, we may be lulled into expecting such performance – how can you go wrong with such a “rock solid” investment? In behavioral finance, this is called recency bias. Bullish investors tend to harbor it, and it may lead to irrational exuberance. (1)


Behavior #1: Believing future performance relates to past performance. In truth, there is no relation. If an investment yields 8-10% for six consecutive years, that does not mean it will yield 8-10% next year. Still, we may be lulled into expecting such performance – how can you go wrong with such a “rock solid” investment? In behavioral finance, this is called recency bias. Bullish investors tend to harbor it, and it may lead to irrational exuberance. (1)


Similarly, investors adjust risk tolerance in light of past performance. If their portfolio returned spectacularly last year, they may be tempted to accept more risk this year. If they took major losses in the equity markets last year, they may become very risk-averse and get out of equities. Both behaviors assume the future will be like the past, when the future is really unknown. (1)


Behavior #2: Investing on familiarity. Familiarity bias encourages you to make investment or consumer choices that are “friendly” and comfortable to you, even when they may be illogical. You go with what you know, without investigating what you don’t know or looking at other options. Another example of familiarity bias is when you invest in a company or a sector largely because you are attracted to or familiar with its “story” – its history, its reputation. (2)