The Cost of Biases
Behavioral finance—the interaction between human psychology and money—has become a major component of current economic theory. Experts on behavioral finance love to study how greed and fear cause massive swings in the markets.
But behavioral finance doesn’t just exist in academic theory and panicked stock crashes—it’s part of everyday life. The human brain isn’t a calculator and struggles to separate money from emotion. Every time we open our wallets, our financial biases and blind spots threaten to disrupt good decision-making.
Fortunately, biases become much easier fight once we learn to recognize them. Here are a few of the most common financial biases people face:
One of the strongest biases, the bandwagon effect is the tendency for people to change their opinion or behavior to match that of those around them. Bandwagons often create social pressures and can push people to spend far too much “keeping up with the Joneses.” Always evaluate your financial decisions on what works best for you, not what works best for others.
Familiarity bias is when people show an irrational preference for something that they’ve used in the past. One common effect of this is default brand loyalty, which can hurt the efficiency of a budget or draw you into extra spending. How many times have you bought a familiar product brand even when there is evidence another option might be better or cheaper? Give something new a try.
This bias is a kind of mental lapse. Self-discipline is difficult, and our brains can only do so much of it before taking a break. If we push ourselves too much, we often react strongly in the opposite direction. Ego depletion is what leads to shopping binges after you cut too much discretionary spending from your budget. Remember: rewarding yourself for progress is an investment in your goals.
Recent/Available Information Bias
When it comes to information, people are quick to embrace the new and forget the old. Information biases are responsible for many fads and false fears. For example, if you have two coworkers who were robbed in the past year, you may want to buy an expensive security system. Even if the thieves were caught and local crime rates are extremely low, your judgement is disproportionally affected by the information that is most recent and most available to you.
This bias is the tendency to misinterpret a situation by focusing on the quality examples. It can be paraphrased as, “you only hear about the ones that make it big.” This bias is most dangerous to entrepreneurs or investors because it causes them to underestimate difficulties overestimate success. People should be brutally honest with themselves and consider the possibility of failure before investing their life savings in a business.
Humans love certainty; it eliminates risks and makes planning for the future much easier. We love it so much we’re often willing to pay more for extra peace of mind, even if it doesn’t make complete sense. For instance, people happily pay a lot of money for the reliability of a new car and then also buy the dealership’s short-term warranty to protect it against a breakdown. We know a new car is highly unlikely to have problems for a few years, but we still feel the need for added certainty.