How Behavioral Finance Can Help Investors In Today's Market (2024)

Behavioral finance can be a bit of a turn-off for some private investors, but for those who avoid it, it means missing a trick that can reap huge rewards. A basic awareness of behavioral finance can certainly help you keep your head in extreme markets – whether those markets are buoyant or depressed, calm or volatile. In short, it can help us break wealth-destroying patterns of behavior – and achieve the opposite result.

But let’s start with a brief look at how and why this is theoretically possible.

Get The Timeless Reading eBook in PDF

Get the entire 10-part series on Timeless Reading in PDF. Save it to your desktop, read it on your tablet, or email to your colleagues.

How Behavioral Finance Can Help Investors In Today's Market (1)

Table of Contents Show

The Efficient Market Hypothesis

According to the “efficient market hypothesis” (EMH), stock markets are efficient. Because investors all have the same information and analyse that data in the same ways, their forecasts should be identical or similar – or so the hypothesis goes. Therefore, the theory has it, it isn’t possible to produce consistently market-beating returns as market prices reflect all known information at any given time. What’s more, it isn’t possible to try and time the market if EMH is valid. So the only way investors can generate market-beating returns is through buying into riskier investments.

But in reality, many investors consistently beat the market for very long periods. The most famous example of all, perhaps, is Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment group. A $10k investment in the stock in 1965 would now be worth over $88m - while the same investment in the S&P 500 would be worth $1.3 million. There are many other examples of investors who have beaten the indices over long periods including Peter Lynch, Anthony Bolton and others.

So given that it clearly is possible to beat the market, and consistently so, how do we do it?

Image source: Pinterest

Behavioral Finance

This is where behavioral finance comes in; this is a psychology-based approach which seeks to explain stock market movements by looking into the emotions and behavior of investors. Get your basic psychology right and put tools in place to control it, and your returns will be better than average.

As investors, we tend to repeat the same mistakes. A knowledge of how and why we’re making those mistakes through some understanding of behavioral finance will allow us to prevent them in the future.

Image source: Anirud Sethi Report

For most private investors, investments play an enormous role in determining current and future wealth – but also that designing and managing a portfolio also represents a set of complex financial decisions which require a huge cognitive load.

He also talks of heuristic-driven bias; the notion that investors have poor insight into statistics and probabilities and instead rely on things like intuition, past experience, trial and error.Investors place too much reliance on “stereotypes”. For instance, we tend to expend a company that has announced good news to “inevitably” do so again and so on.

Putting these two factors together is a worrying prospect for the individual investor, or at least, it should be!

This overreliance on non-objective, non-statistical data as well as a biased approach to stats make investors vulnerable to errors and poor decision making. These heuristic biases include what are described as “overconfidence”, “anchoring and adjustment”, “frame dependence”, “availability”, “representativeness” and “aversion to ambiguity”. There are many other types of cognitive bias that help sway us from an otherwise objective viewpoint.

So let’s get down to it, have a look at each area – then consider ways of avoiding these traps…

  1. Overconfidence

Most experienced investors will be familiar with the pitfalls of overconfidence. "There are two main implications of investor overconfidence. The first is that investors take bad bets because they fail to realize that they are at an informational disadvantage. The second is that they trade more frequently than is prudent, which leads to excessive trading volume."

How many of us aren’t guilty of placing too much faith in our forecasting abilities? Overconfidence implies that individuals overvalue their knowledge or abilities. Other academics have also postulated that overconfident investors won’t learn from their mistakes as they don’t see it as a bias that affects their decision making. They’re blind to their own failings in other words – and, therefore, likely to repeat their mistakes.

Overconfidence may be a factor in today’s market. Anyone new to the investing game may think they’re a genius with the FTSE 100 at or near record levels following a 25% post-Brexit rally. But as investment great Ben Graham said, “the chief losses to investors come from the purchase of low-quality securities at times of favorable business conditions."

And as the aforementioned Anthony Bolton says; “When investments go well, you mustn’t get too full of yourself and believe everything you touch will turn to gold. It won’t.”

  1. Anchoring and adjustment

Anchoring and adjustment is a common psychological weakness in different walks of life. The theory holds that we place too much on the initial piece of information we discover – the "anchor".

Once we’ve “dropped anchor”, subsequent judgments are made by making adjustments to the anchor. But our bias is in interpreting subsequent information around that anchor.

Of course, retailers and salesmen have been using anchoring to good effect for donkey’s years. This product “should” be X price normally, but is currently available at… etc.

As investors, we sometimes tend to “overanchor” our initial assessments, without reassessing that information and without giving new information sufficient attention. In other words, we want to be proved right, so we are too stuck in our initial analysis. This may be reflected in the price of a share, for example. If your initial analysis held that BT Group (BT.A) shares were good value 18 months ago at £5, you may think that c.£3 is cheap without giving sufficient weight to the investigation into BT's Italian business, for example.

  1. Frame dependence

“Frame dependence” holds that investors’ risk tolerances change with the overall direction of the market. Therefore, investors are overly cautious in a falling market, and too confident when things are going well. This helps explain markets’ tendencies to overshoot and runs completely contrary to true contrarianism.

The “Sage of Omaha” Warren Buffett sums this up famously urging us to do the opposite, saying: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,” which sounds rather a lot like timing the market, by the way.

Of course, many investors do the exact opposite:

We may well be in such a situation now. The FTSE chart is surfing a wave of optimism based on positive economic data – including better than expected employment and manufacturing data from the U.S. But there are eye-watering P/Es to match. The average P/E of the UK’s largest companies is now around 35. The historical average is 15. This may be a blunt financial measurement, but consider that in 1999 and early 2000, the ratio reached 30 – whilst in 2008-9 at the peak of the financial crisis, it was well below ten.

  1. Availability bias

Availability bias concerns investors’ tendency to focus too much on information that is often mentioned and readily available without giving sufficient weight to other factors which may be less readily available/more hidden, or which just aren’t deemed as newsworthy or important.

Any investors reading some of the more “bullish” bulletin boards on individual stocks will be very familiar with this kind of bias. It’s a similar bias to only listening to one side of the bear-bull argument, when there are two sides to any market by definition.

  1. Representativeness

Representativeness bias is defined as “the degree to which an event is similar in characteristics to its parent population, and reflects the salient features of the process by which it is generated". This creeps in when we give too much weight to a single or recent event – and when we base future extrapolations on expectations based upon past experiences. Often, a trend is already well-established, but we still give too much weight to that trend.

Investors may, for example, forecast future earnings based on the rapid growth of recent years, and unrealistically presume this will continue, believing only the most optimistic forecasts. All this leads to overpricing. In such situations, any actual blip in earnings can send share prices into freefall.

Representativeness is sometimes used as a criticism for chartists' techniques which are based on the recent performance of a chart in determining future direction of that chart.

"We shall overcome" - Beating your own bias

So how does the ordinary private investor try to overcome these biases?

A word of warning first; there are various tactics, but perhaps the biggest factor to consider if you’re working alone is how you’ll adhere in the future to the resolutions you set yourself today. Self-discipline and adherence to the rules you yourself set is the biggest single challenge here.

As the aforementioned Anthony Bolton says; “if you are very emotional you may not make a good investor as you will be too influenced by the prevailing investment climate.” This is our biggest hurdle; overcoming emotion in both the good times and the bad.

Quantitative criteria

Overall, it’s important to develop your own quantitative criteria to make your decisions as objectively as possible. Looking at profitability, growth, liquidity, leverage, P/E ratios, yield, price-to-book value and other factors for investment, as well as giving each area an appropriate weighting can help you arrive at decisions objectively without being swayed by too much qualitative judgement. Of course, there’s a big place for qual, but make sure the quant is in place first. Otherwise, reject the investment (long or short). There will always be further opportunities.

This approach also necessitates acceptance in letting a few get away; this is part and parcel of the successful investor’s lot. Star Trek’s Mr Spock’s objective approach, keeping emotion out of your decision making, can help avoid investing traps. If the numbers don’t stack up, try not to make the investment fit – it won’t, because it’s illogical.


Similarly, having a checklist to consult before you hit the buy/sell button is good self-discipline. Few investments will meet all your own criteria, but most should meet most – and your checklist will help iron-out many of the above biases.

"Phone a friend"

If there are fellow investors whose opinion you value, then discussing all trades beforehand and trying to get “clearance” can help enormously in cooling your ardor and pointing out the counter argument.

Making such “clearance” a precondition can help preserve wealth.


Let’s get back to Buffett. Trying to be a little more bearish than usual in bull markets and vice versa in predicting earnings and future prospects can help overcome irrational pessimism or irrational exuberance. A similar tactic lies in setting strict automatic buy or sell limits based on your microanalysis. Then, when the macro effects of what Ben Graham called “Mr Market” take that investment irrationally high or low, you’ve lost your objectivity – your automatic trade will do the hard part for you.

David Dreman's “Contrarian Investment Strategies“ is the definitive book on this subject.

Warren Buffett suggests we should invest in equities as if we were buying the whole company. He also said we should invest as if the market will be closed for the next decade. Following this kind of thinking helps overcome cognitive bias and helps focus our minds on likely future profits, assets, debt, sales and cashflow and so on.

Avoid bubbles

Similarly, by concentrating on company specific information and being realistic about likely future earnings and balance sheet strength, you should be able to tell when an individual company’s valuation is too high or too low.

The same is true of indices which generally revert to mean. You’ll probably miss some of the absolute crazy peaks, but you’ll sleep better at night.


Stop-losses don’t always work 100%, but they are helpful in helping prevent you from selling too soon, thereby maximizing the potential of those crazy peaks.

Find what works

Finding proven investment strategies and following their advice can be enormously helpful (unless the provider is trying to sell that advice). “What Has Worked in Investingf” (by Tweedy, Browne) is a good example.


Putting in place strategies in calm times to overcome our innate weakness in more turbulent times is desirable. The more watertight those strategies can be, the more successful we are likely to be as investors. Self-discipline (and the strategies to ensure self-discipline) is vital.

We all make investing mistakes. Accepting them, learning from them and trying to prevent their recurrence is what this is all about – and a self-awareness through some understanding of behavioral finance can help private investors break wealth-destroying patterns of their own behavior.

As someone deeply immersed in the field of behavioral finance, I can attest to the critical role it plays in understanding and navigating the complexities of financial markets. My extensive experience and expertise in this domain allow me to shed light on the nuances and practical applications of behavioral finance, making it more accessible to both seasoned investors and those just starting their financial journey.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) serves as a foundational concept in traditional finance theory. According to EMH, stock markets are efficient, implying that all available information is reflected in stock prices, and it's impossible to consistently outperform the market. However, real-world examples, such as Warren Buffett's success with Berkshire Hathaway, challenge this hypothesis. The ability of certain investors to consistently beat the market for extended periods contradicts the EMH.

This is where behavioral finance emerges as a game-changer. It delves into the psychological aspects influencing investor behavior, acknowledging that emotions and cognitive biases play a significant role in market movements. Understanding these behavioral patterns becomes crucial for investors aiming to avoid wealth-destroying habits and enhance their returns.

Key Concepts in Behavioral Finance:

  1. Heuristic-Driven Bias:

    • Investors often rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, instead of rigorous statistical analysis.
    • Common heuristic-driven biases include poor insight into statistics and probabilities, reliance on intuition, past experiences, and trial and error.
  2. Overreliance on Stereotypes:

    • Investors tend to rely too much on stereotypes, making assumptions about a company's future performance based on its past success or failure.
    • Breaking free from these stereotypes is essential for making objective investment decisions.
  3. Cognitive Biases:

    • Various cognitive biases impact investor decisions, such as overconfidence, anchoring and adjustment, frame dependence, availability bias, representativeness, and aversion to ambiguity.
    • Awareness of these biases is crucial for preventing errors and promoting better decision-making.
  4. Overconfidence:

    • Overconfident investors may take bad bets and trade excessively, leading to suboptimal results.
    • Acknowledging informational disadvantages and learning from mistakes is vital to avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence.
  5. Anchoring and Adjustment:

    • Investors often anchor their decisions to initial information and make subsequent adjustments based on that anchor.
    • Overanchoring can lead to a failure to reassess information, potentially impacting investment decisions.
  6. Frame Dependence:

    • Investors' risk tolerances can change with market directions, contributing to overshooting tendencies.
    • Contrarianism, as advocated by Warren Buffett, suggests being fearful when others are greedy and vice versa, aiming to overcome frame dependence.
  7. Availability Bias:

    • Investors may focus excessively on readily available information, neglecting less visible factors.
    • A balanced consideration of all relevant information is essential to avoid the pitfalls of availability bias.
  8. Representativeness Bias:

    • Giving too much weight to a single event or recent trend can lead to overpricing and flawed future extrapolations.
    • Investors must be cautious not to overemphasize recent events in their decision-making processes.

Strategies to Overcome Behavioral Biases:

  • Quantitative Criteria: Develop objective criteria, including profitability, growth, liquidity, leverage, P/E ratios, and yield, to make decisions more objectively.
  • Checklist: Establish a checklist to ensure decisions align with predetermined criteria, mitigating biases.
  • Seeking External Input: Discussing trades with fellow investors can provide valuable perspectives and counterarguments.
  • Contrarianism: Adopting a contrarian approach and setting strict buy/sell limits based on thorough analysis can help overcome irrational market movements.
  • Avoiding Bubbles: Focusing on company-specific information and realistic assessments of future earnings helps identify overvalued or undervalued assets.
  • Stop-Losses: Implementing stop-loss orders can prevent premature selling and maximize potential gains.

In conclusion, behavioral finance serves as a powerful tool for investors seeking to understand and navigate the psychological underpinnings of financial markets. By acknowledging and addressing cognitive biases, individuals can break free from wealth-destroying patterns of behavior and make more informed investment decisions.

How Behavioral Finance Can Help Investors In Today's Market (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Last Updated:

Views: 6148

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (76 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Birthday: 1999-05-27

Address: Apt. 171 8116 Bailey Via, Roberthaven, GA 58289

Phone: +2585395768220

Job: Lead Liaison

Hobby: Lockpicking, LARPing, Lego building, Lapidary, Macrame, Book restoration, Bodybuilding

Introduction: My name is Sen. Ignacio Ratke, I am a adventurous, zealous, outstanding, agreeable, precious, excited, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.