Overcoming your behavioural biases when investing

Investing is rife with choices, and sometimes to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed, we choose the path of least resistance or go with our gut feeling; we rely on biases or mental shortcuts to guide our decision-making. Further, human behaviour is often influenced by our unconscious emotional and cognitive biases. These biases help our brains avoid becoming overwhelmed by the decisions we make each day. While these mental shortcuts may help us in some aspects of our lives, it’s important to recognize that investing wisely requires you to go beyond a “gut check”, to use sound investing principles and do thorough research.  

To avoid falling for your own behavioural biases, let’s examine some common types you may recognize.

Status Quo bias: 

The status quo bias is the tendency to keep things as they are or “stick with what you know.” With respect to investing, this bias might not seem like a problem. However, avoiding risks associated with change or perhaps favouring what you’ve always done might also mean that you fail to take advantage of investment opportunities or examine and track your investments in relation to your financial goals, risk tolerance and time horizon.  

Confirmation bias:

One factor that reinforces the status quo bias is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias means that you seek out information that only confirms your beliefs. In investing, this might show up as having difficulty changing your view of a particular stock, even in the face of data supporting the opposite view.

Availability bias:

Availability bias implies that people believe that an event that has occurred recently will occur again soon, regardless of the probability that it actually will. When something has occurred recently or has significantly impacted us, our brains are even less likely to correctly weigh the risk or probability that it will happen again. In investing, this may show up as making a rash investment decision based on a recent headline, advertisement, or story you heard from a friend causing you inadvertently to deviate from your financial plan.

It’s natural for people to focus on immediate and tangible things – when compared to planning your next vacation or saving for a new car, saving for your retirement or your child’s post-secondary education may feel abstract and out of reach. For example, you may not know how much money those things will cost in the future or you may feel uncertain about how your investment portfolio will perform over such a long time horizon. As a result, you might focus on putting money towards more immediate wants and needs to avoid the discomfort of the perceived unknown.

Present Focus bias:

Investing with your instincts might be tempting or feel natural, but grounding your investment decisions on fundamental research and a long-term view of your investment goals can help you invest wisely. In addition to accessing the free and unbiased resources available through the Alberta Securities Commission’s CheckFirst.ca website, consider other ways you might reduce the impact of unconscious biases on your investment strategy, such as enlisting the services of a financial advisor or robo-advisor.