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Investor behaviour

Its tough to deal with losses, but you must

This article of ours first appeared in Mint on 12th Feb, 2018.

Imagine you have units of ABC mutual fund. You consider switching to XYZ mutual fund, but don’t. One year passes and you find that you would have made Rs1 lakh more if you had switched to XYZ mutual fund. How would you feel? Now imagine another scenario where you have units of ABC mutual fund, and during the year you switched to XYZ mutual fund. One year passes and you find that you would have made Rs1 lakh more had you kept ABC mutual fund. How would you feel? Which condition would make you feel worse?

Studies by Nobel-winning behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky have found that 92% of people find the second condition worse. The mistake of an action seems worse than a mistake from inaction. It generates more regret because the first condition is like an opportunity lost whereas the second condition is an actual loss. The second condition translates to seeing oneself as a loser, but not the first. The monetary loss is followed by a psychological loss from admitting you made a mistake. That’s why losses cause a lot of pain.

The region of the brain associated with evaluating negative emotions like pain and disgust is called ‘insula’. When people smell vomit or see a cockroach, the insula bursts into action. The insula also lights up when we lose money. In a study by M.P. Paulus et al, the insula was roughly three times as active after people lost money as it was after they won money. The more intensely the insula fired, the more likely the person was to pick a lower-risk option the next time.

Losing money on an investment is like smelling rotten food, it’s disgusting. We try to move away from it, wipe it off our memory and want to wash our hands off it. That explains why investors, including me, find it difficult to sell an investment when its price is down, since the notional loss will now get converted into actual loss. That makes most people like to believe that the price of the loser investment will go up one day and that’s when we’ll sell it. The thinking goes, ‘If we sell it now and it bounces back, we would have made two mistakes —one buying high and two selling low. If we hold on and it bounces back, we will feel much better.’ However, if we hold on and it doesn’t bounce back, it will be a bigger loss than had we sold it. Hanging on makes sense only if we believe that the investment has value and that value is more than the existing low price of the investment. However, that’s a tough decision which leaves most investors paralytic.

An analysis of 2 million transactions of Finnish investors by behavioural scientists Hersh Shefrin and Meir Statman, found that they are 32% less likely to sell a stock after a sharp fall in price. Professional money managers in Israel cling to their losing stocks for an average of 55 days—more than twice as long as they hold winners. A study by David Harless and Steven Peterson that looked at 97,000 trades, found that investors cashed in on 51% more of their gains than their losses, even they could have raised their average annual returns though by 3.4% points if they had held on to winners and dumped the losers. The study by Martin Weber and Colin Camerer found that among 450,000 trades in 8,000 accounts at a brokerage firm, 21.5% of clients never sold a single stock that had dropped in price. Researchers Zur Shapira and Itzhak Venezia found that new mutual fund managers sold 100% of the stocks ranked at the bottom, implying that their predecessors would have been paralyzed by their own mistakes that only a new person could clean the portfolio. Karl Case and Robert Shiller find that people trying to sell their house hold out longer when they are facing a loss, and will often take the house off the market and not sell, rather than lose money on it.

Dealing with losses is painful, but thinking about the loss differently could help. One behavioural design solution could be to find another investment that you would like to put money into. Think of the proceeds as funding the new investment by selling the loser investment. It will help you generate cash for buying the new investment and you can write off the loss to offset your capital gains and reduce your taxable income. Moreover, the learning of what went wrong should be undertaken by introspecting why the loser investment was originally bought and why its value had changed over time. If the investment still has value and potential, then holding on would make sense. If not, the faster you can sell, the lesser will be your loss.

Ek baar jo maine commitment kar di, toh phir main khudki bhi nahi sunta   (Once I commit, then I don’t even listen to myself)

Its a famous dialogue of movie star Salman Khan in the Bollywood movie -Dabang.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced doing things over and over again that one day we realize it’s difficult to do it any other way. Whether we’ve invested our time and money in a particular project or poured our energy into a doomed relationship, it’s difficult to let go, even when things aren’t clearly working.

You may say that commitment is essential to motivation. Sure it is. But sometimes it works in funny ways. Take for example, Max Bazerman’s negotiation class at Harvard Business School. In his class he waves a $20 in the air and offers it up for auction. Two rules: bids are to be made in increments of $1 and runner-up losses his/her amount bid. It means that the second best finishes last and has to honor his/her bid, while receiving nothing in return. Winner of course wins the $20.

The bidding starts fast and furious until it reaches $12 to $16 range. When students realize they’re approaching the $20 mark, everyone drops out, till the two highest bidders are left.

Without realizing it, the two students with the highest bids get locked in. Neither wants to be the loser who pays money for nothing. So they become committed to the strategy of playing not to lose. It’s like both saying to themselves ‘Ek baar jo maine commitment kar di, toh phir main khudki bhi nahi sunta’.

The auction continues with the bid going up $18, $19 and yes $20. The other students begin thinking about the poor classmate who bid $19. But when the bidding continues to $21, $22, $23 the students cannot control their laughter. It’s common sense for the bidder to accept his/her loss and stop the auction. But apparently it’s easier said than done. The momentum and the looming loss pull the two bidders. To withdraw is to accept a sure loss, which is highly unattractive. So the bidding continues $50, $100, $150. Max Bazerman says up to a record $204.

The two combined forces at work – loss aversion and commitment – make us behave irrationally. And these two forces affect a lot of decisions of ours – whether its love, career, business, shopping, travel, etc.

Apparently, Max Bazerman also performs a $100 version of the auction for executives. This auction goes up in $5 increments. But the higher stakes don’t prevent enthusiastic bidding.

Source: Judgement in Managerial Decision Making (John Wiley & Sons 2002, page 79-80) – Max Bazerman – who in turn got the idea from Martin Shubik’s The Dollar Auction Game: A paradox in Noncooperative Behavior & Escalation – Journal of Conflict Resolution 15 (1971): 109-111.

Use a calculator, not your heart, to assess risk

This article of ours first appeared in Mint on 6th Dec, 2017.

It has taken millions of years for humans to evolve into the species we are today. But it’s been only a few decades of living with rapid technological and economic development. We have lived among and survived snakes, spiders and other species that could have led to our extinction. That’s probably why our brain has developed parts like the amygdala, which acts as an alarm system, generating fast emotions like fear when we notice anything that’s out of place or scary. The amygdala that induces the fear reflex has helped our ancestors survive and it continues to remain a vital tool in today’s daily life. When we see a face that’s scared, we take cues and act instantly; or, if we smell smoke, the amygdala floods the body with fear signals even before we are consciously aware of being afraid.

However, today, life has been changed dramatically due to money and technology. A potential economic threat makes us panic. When our investments take a sudden drop, we react and sell our investments; making ourselves poorer, not richer. But we feel more comfortable to invest when markets are rising. We do the opposite of what common sense shows us—we need to buy low and sell high to make a profit, but we buy high and sell low. In other circumstances, people avoid investing in the stock markets because they are afraid that the stock market might crash, but have no idea how rising prices eat up their savings and cause a loss of money. We are not good at assessing risk—monetary and non-monetary.

The more vivid and imaginable a risk is, the scarier it feels. Behavioural scientist, Paul Slovic, says people will pay twice as much for an insurance policy that covers hospitalization for ‘any disease’ than one that covers hospitalization for ‘any reason’. Any reason covers any disease, but ‘any reason’ seems vague, while ‘any disease’ is vivid. The vividness fills us with fear. It’s not logical. Decades of behavioural science is proving than we don’t always make rational decisions. On the contrary, we often make decisions based on emotion and therefore the decisions sometimes tend to be not rational. For example, people are scared of flying because a plane crash is vivid. Tons of people, including myself, buy air travel insurance, but if we take probability of a plane crash into account, we will find the air travel insurance not worthwhile. At the same time, driving a car without wearing a seat belt feels perfectly safe for a lot of people in India. Let’s see what the numbers have to say. Last year, no one died in India due to a plane crash compared to more than 1,50,000 people who died in road accidents in 2016. So what’s safer—flying by plane or driving on roads? Here’s another example: terrorism. Terrorism creates images of violence, gun shots, bombs, bloodshed. We feel that the risk of terrorism is uncontrollable. But did you know that only 178 civilians died due to terrorism in India this year. On the other hand, smoking kills 1 million people every year in India. Yet we feel more scared of terrorists than cigarettes. But smokers feel they are in charge and understand the consequences, that’s why the risks seem lower than they truly are.

Says Nobel-winning behavioural scientist, Daniel Kahneman, “We tend to judge the probability of an event by the ease with which we can call it to our mind. The more recently an event has occurred, or the more vivid our memory of something like it in the past, the more available an event will be in our minds and the more probable it will seem to happen again.” Clearly that’s not the right way to assess risk because the event does not become more probable just because it occurred recently. In fact, the best time to ‘value invest’ is when the markets are depressed. That’s likely to be a time when there is more bad news than good news, when corporate performances don’t look that good and when analysts don’t have nice things to say. In other words: when markets are low. However, people judge such times to be risky and stay away from stock markets, and when the markets are rising, people hear positive news all around and most investors find comfort in positive statements made by analysts. Due to this positivity and euphoria, people invest at high levels only to find that the trend doesn’t hold true for long.

Understanding risk is critical to managing money. So when you think about risk, it’s better to use a calculator instead of your heart.

 

Investor biases and behaviour

We were in Goa over the weekend for delivering a talk on investor biases and behaviour for SBI Mutual Fund’s financial advisors. We spoke about several biases and how advisors need to be aware of them for handling their own portfolio as well as for managing their client’s expectations and behaviour. Biases like action bias, loss aversion, mental accounting, choice paradox, social proof, etc. make people their own worst enemies in investing. That’s why markets multiply money by hundred times but investors don’t get such returns. It was also fun interacting with fund managers and understanding their perspective on investing. Since these are commissioned talks they can’t be shared. However you can read all about investor behaviour and how to not make investing mistakes by clicking ‘Investor Behaviour’ in ‘Click on your topic of interest’ on the homepage right hand column. Happy reading, learning and investing!

Post-edit: The second round of the talk happened in Hyderabad.

Behavioural Design interview on Radio One 94.3 – Part 1

We all do as others do

This article of ours appeared in the editorial column of The Economic Times on 29th Dec, 2016

We did an interesting experiment in Mumbai some time back. We got 98 households across a few housing societies in Bandra and Khar to provide us with their electricity bills before the bills reached each member’s house. We then calculated the average bill amount in that particular society.

Let’s say the average was Rs 1,022. For all above-average users, we put a stamp stating that the average in that society is Rs 1,022. Next to their above average amount, we put a frownie indicating that they could do better.

The average number set the social norm and got the above average users to act like their neighbours and reduce their electricity consumption by 1.33 per cent. 1.33 per cent sounds small, but it can power 17,465 villages for one whole year. We called the experiment People Power because it gives people the power to make a difference at no cost.

Human behaviour is contagious. Our actions are often guided by how people around us are behaving. The information provided by the stamp let the above-average users know how much their neighbours were consuming.

That set the social norm and got them to reduce their power consumption. We do as others do. If people see other people littering, they litter too. If people see other people throwing waste in dustbins, they use dustbins too. If people see other people cheating, they cheat too. If people see other people being honest, they behave honestly too.

Behavioural science studies show that people dress in the same styles as their friends, pick dishes preferred by other diners, choose restaurants that are more crowded, are more likely to get fat if people around them become fat, are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit, pay taxes if others are paying, vote if their spouse votes, and so on. A five-star review on Amazon leads to approximately 20 more books sold than one-star reviews.

This behavioural science principle of ‘social proof ‘ made a popular American infomercial for a home shopping channel change the all-toofamiliar call-to-action line at the end of the infomercial, “Operators are waiting, please call now” to “If operators are busy, please call again”. This simple change led to its sales skyrocketing.

On the face of it, the change seems foolhardy. After all, the message indicates that one may have to waste their time redialing till they reach a sales representative. Yet it worked so brilliantly.

Consider the kind of mental image that’s likely to get generated when you hear, ‘Operators are waiting, please call now’ — scores of bored phone representatives while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you hear, ‘If operators are busy, please call again’ — operators going from phone call to phone call without a break, right? That made people think: ‘If the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial must be calling too.

Most people think they are different. But in reality most of us behave the way others do. So powerful is the effect of others on us that television executives love to fill comedy shows with canned laughter.

Experiments by lots of behavioural scientists have found that the use of canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented. People rate the material as funnier. In addition, evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes.

In another experiment conducted by behavioural scientists Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius (‘A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels’, goo.gl/OJT1pb), different kinds of signs were placed in hotel rooms. One of the signs asked guests to help save the environment by reusing their towels.

The second one informed them that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels to help save the environment. The second sign had a success rate of 26 per cent more than the first sign.

A third sign informed guests that majority of people who had previously stayed in their particular room recycled their towels to help save the environment. The third sign had a success rate of 33 per cent more than the first sign.

Now only if hotels could apply the same principle to reducing theft of towels, shampoos, bedsheets, stationary and, yes, appliances too.

Sources: 1. Schultz, P. Wesley, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius, “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms”, Psychological Science 18:429-34 (2007) 2. Kelman, H. C. (1 March 1958). “Compliance, identification, and internalization three processes of attitude change”. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1): 51–60.) 3. Cai, Hongbi, Yuyu Chen and Hanming Fang – Observational Learning: Evidence from a randomised natural field experiment – American Economic Review 99, no.3: 864-82 (2009) 4. Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius – A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels – Journal of Consumer Research 35:472-82 (2008) 5. David W. Nickerson – Is voting contagious? Evidence from two field experiments – American Political Science Review 102: 49-57 (2008) 6. Nicholas A. Christakis and James Fowler – Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and How they shape our lives (2009) 7. Behavioural Insights Team – erstwhile cabinet office of British Government 8. Gary S. Becker – A note on restaurant pricing and other examples of social influence on price – Journal of Political Economy 99, no. 3: 1109-16 (1991) 9. Chevalier, Judith and Dina Mayzlin – The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews – Journal of Marketing Research 43, no.3: 345-54 (2006) 10. Gregory S. Berns et al – Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation – Biological Psychiatry 58: 245-53 (2005) 11. M. M. Smith and R. G. C. Fuller – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials – Psychological Reports 30:132-34 (1972) 12. R. G. C. Fuller and A. Sheehy-Skeffinton – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials: A replication and extension – Psychological Reports 35:531-34 (1974) 13. T. A. Nosanchuk and J. Lightstone – Canned laughter and public and private conformity – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29:153-56 (1974)

Why Behavioural Design is more effective than Advertising at changing behaviour

Advertising is useful for creating awareness of the the brand and making the brand likable through a story. However its too much to expect that viewers would choose that same brand or product when they are actually in ‘buy’ mode. Because today consumers are subjected to thousands of associations everyday and the human brain cannot be expected to revive the desired brand connection at point of purchase or consumption. Behavioural Design, on the other hand, works at this moment of truth and is far more effective at making people act in the desired way. Let us give you an example.

Suppose we wanted to encourage students to drink alcohol in limits and not go overboard. And say we chose advertising as a way to influence them to reduce their drinking. And say we even use the proven persuasive technique of using social norms – people are motivated to behave in line with perceived social norms. So we advertise that 85% of students drink 2 or lesser than 2 drinks when they party. The thinking is that when students know that their peers don’t drink much, it will reduce the amount that they’ll want to drink when they party. And we advertise via posters in colleges in prominent places so that the students would surely notice them.

Though the technique of social norm is persuasive, by the time the students get to the pubs, clubs, parties, wherever drinking occurs, they forget about that piece of persuasive messaging. The disparity between where the students see the persuasive message and where they are when they drink means that the distant voice of the message is likely to be drowned by the here-and-now sounds of cheers, fast music, laughter and an ambience created to shed inhibitions.

It’s unlikely that the same message would work if placed inside the pubs or clubs, especially if students see other students drinking more than 2 drinks. But what if the pubs put playful ‘light cubes’ in students’ drinks. Light cubes that are LED lights enclosed in plastic, emitting flashes of blue and white light, making the drink look like it were flashing the police car lights (blue, white and red in US). That could subliminally remind the students of the presence of cops around and restrict them from going overboard and getting into trouble. That’s why Behavioural Design is more powerful at changing behaviour.

We do what others do

You may be saying to yourself ‘People follow what others do, but I’m different.’ Then again everyone feels like that. And that makes you no different than me.

Most of us learn by following what others do and that’s how societies develop. Also, if we care about what other people think about us, then we’ll go along with the crowd to avoid social exclusion (peer pressure), though we may not be aware of the degree to which we’re socially influenced. Here are few such interesting influences that make us behave in a particular way.

In a real-world experiment tax officials in Minnesota, US gave groups of taxpayers different kind of information. Some were told their tax was put to good use in education, etc. Some were threatened with punishments for noncompliance. Others were given helpful information like how to fill their tax forms, etc. Remaining were told that more than 90% of Minnesotans already complied, in full. This last intervention generated the most impact on tax compliance, proving that desirable behaviour can be increased, by drawing public attention to what others are doing.

In another study conducted by Schultz, 300 households in San Marcos, California were informed about how much energy they had used in previous weeks. They were also given average consumption of energy by households in the neighborhood. In the following weeks, the above-average users, reduced their energy consumption; but the below-average users, increased their energy consumption! If the current action is better than the social norm, then people should not be informed of the norm. An addition of a smiley, to indicate that below-average users’ consumption was socially favored, brought the consumption down again. Our experiment People Power was based on this experiment.

As Behavioural Designers, if we want to change people’s behaviour, we should let people know about what other people are doing. Though if people’s behaviour is undesirable then care must be taken to craft the intervention. The other day we saw an ad of Olay Total Effects anti-ageing cream in a women’s magazine. The headline read as ‘Does life really end at 30?’ while the copy went on to explain in bold letters that ‘82% of married women worry more about cooking the right food for their mothers in law than choosing the right cream for their skin.’ And ‘83% of women worry more about the marks their kids get in exams than the marks on their skin.’ ‘Your priorities may change but why let the skin suffer?’

The ad condemns women’s behaviour but also highlights that the undesired behaviour is common. Women will subconsciously interpret the message to be ‘Majority of women feel that way, so why not me?’ therefore it will be counterproductive for Olay and P&G. We may not admit it, but we do what others do.

Source: Schultz, P. Wesley, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius, “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms”, Psychological Science 18 (2007): 429-34

How reframing choices changes our decision

(In the illustration did you first see a rabbit or a duck?)

Consider the following situation. Imagine that India is preparing for the outbreak of a disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative treatments to combat the disease have been proposed.

If Treatment A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Treatment B is adopted, there is a 1/3rd probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3rd probability that no people will be saved.

Which one do you prefer?

Most likely you prefer the certain option – Treatment A over the gamble – Treatment B.

Now lets consider a second version of the situation:

If Treatment A’ is adopted, 400 people will die.

If Treatment B’ is adopted, there is a 1/3rd probability that nobody will die and a 2/3rd probability that 600 people will die.

Which one do you prefer?

Most likely you prefer the gamble – Treatment B over the certain option – Treatment A.

Now look closely and compare the two versions: the consequences of Treatment A and A’ are identical and so are the consequences of Treatment B and B’. However, your options most probably differed. Did you choose to save 200 lives for sure in the first version and chose to gamble rather than accept 400 deaths in the other?

Embarrassed? So were we. Even when this test was shared with public health professionals in the US, they were swayed by this framing effect!

Daniel Kahneman, nobel-winning behavioural economist, explains the rationale behind our decisions. In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he says “Decision makers tend to prefer the sure thing over the gamble, when the outcomes are good. They tend to reject the sure thing and accept the gamble, when both the outcomes are bad. Risk-averse and risk-seeking preferences are not reality-bound.”

This shows how a small manipulation can have drastic impact on decision-making. And if you still believe that we humans behave rationally, think again.

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