Behavioural finance: The investment mistakes caused by framing

Posted by Stephen Sutherland on Thu, Jul 12, 2012 @ 04:00 PM

Behavioural investing framingIn the third of our posts on behavioural investing, we'll look at the dramatic effects the concept of framing can have in an investment context.

Peoples' personality traits can hugely affect the way they react to the actual performance of their portfolio in the future. For example, consider a situation where two investors (Bob and Brian) have made the same investment. Over one year, the market average rises 10 per cent but the individual investment value increases by 6 per cent. 

Bob cares only about the investment return and frames this as a gain of 6 per cent. Brian is concerned with how the investment performs relative to the benchmark of the market average. The investment has lagged behind the market’s performance and Brian frames this as a loss of 4 per cent. Which investor is likely to be happier with the performance of their investment?

Because of the way that individuals feel losses more than gains, Bob is much more likely to be happy with the investment than Brian. Their differing reactions here will frame their future investment decisions. Another problem for investors is the strong tendency for individuals to frame their investments too narrowly – looking at performance over short time periods, even when their investment horizon is long term. People also struggle to consider their portfolio as a whole, focusing too narrowly on the performance of individual components.

The 70% rule

Consider the “70% rule” that advises people to plan on spending about 70 per cent of their current income during their retirement.

For most people, this rule of thumb is intuitively appealing, which could explain why it has become so popular among financial planners. Now let’s use slightly different lenses and reframe the 70 per cent rule as the 30 per cent rule. That is, rather than focusing on the 70 per cent of expenditures someone would sustain through retirement, let’s consider the 30 per cent of expenditures that should be eliminated. Most people find the 30 percent rule unpalatable, even though the 70 per cent and 30 per cent rules are mathematically identical. 

Investors hate losses

Individuals are extremely sensitive to the way in which decisions are presented or ‘framed’ – simply changing the wording or adding irrelevant background detail can dramatically change peoples' perceptions of the alternatives available to them, even where there is no reason for their underlying preferences to have changed. When individuals make investment decisions, emotion and reason work together, but they produce very different emotional results depending on whether the investment made or lost money. For example, according to Shefrin, people tend to feel losses much more strongly than the pleasure of making a comparable gain.

This emotional strain is magnified when the person assumes responsibility for the loss. This guilt feeling then produces an aversion to risk. But this level of guilt can be changed depending on how a financial decision is framed. For example, if an adventurous investor seeking attractive returns over the long-term made close to 100 per cent over two years and then lost 20 per cent in year three, the investor could justify the year three loss by saying that even though they suffered a hefty loss over a twelve month period, the fact remains that they had made an annual return over the three years of 21.6 per cent which would be classed by many as impressive performance.

Myopic thinking can lead to investment mistakes

Behavioral finance's answer to the equity premium puzzle revolves around the tendency for people to have "myopic loss aversion", a situation in which investors - overly preoccupied by the negative effects of losses in comparison to an equivalent amount of gains – take a very short-term view on an investment. What happens is that investors are paying too much attention to the short-term volatility of their portfolios.

While it's not uncommon for an average stock or fund to fluctuate a few percentage points in a very short period of time, a myopic (i.e. shortsighted) investor may not react too favourably to the downside changes. Therefore, it is believed that equities must yield a high-enough premium to compensate for the investor's considerable aversion to loss.

Over-monitoring performance

How frequently you monitor your portfolio’s performance can bias your perception of it. Suppose you were investing over a 5-year investment horizon in a high-risk equity portfolio. The table below presents how you would perceive the portfolio depending on the monitoring period. Over the appropriate 5-year time frame, equity performance has been positive 90 per cent of the time, and so risky investments do not lose money more than 10 per cent of the time. However, if you were to monitor the performance of the same portfolio on a month-by-month basis, you would observe a loss 38 per cent of the time!*

Once again, because of our inherent aversion to loss, monitoring your portfolio more frequently will cause you to observe more periods of loss, making it likely you'll feel more emotional stress and take on less risk than is appropriate for your long-term investment objectives.

Percentage of time seeing:

5 year monitoring period

1-month monitoring period







Observing short-term fluctuations in the value of an investment is likely to cause more discomfort for investors who are particularly sensitive to losses. This may prevent them from investing in such a portfolio and thus lose out on the higher potential returns that they would get by taking on appropriate levels of risk.

* Source: Kahneman and Riepe, 1998.

In the next post in this series, we'll explore another key concept of behavioral finance known as 'herd behaviour' and how this can undermine investors' decision making.

I hope you've found this post useful. As always, if you have any questions or thoughts on the points I've covered, please leave a comment below or connect with us @ISACO_ on Twitter.

Related posts:

Behavioural finance: An opportunity for smart investors

Behavioural finance: Two anomalies that can cause investing mistakes

Please note past performance should not be used as a guide to future performance, which is not guaranteed. Investing in Funds should be considered a long-term investment. The value of the investment can go down as well as up and there is no guarantee that you will get back the amount you originally invested.


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Topics: Behavioural Investing, Achieving your investment goals, Investment mistakes