For many investors, nothing is stronger than the stubbornness that emerges when making a new decision means admitting that an earlier one was a mistake. Such an admission comes at a high psychological cost in terms of self-image. As a result, many people avoid disappointment and regret by clinging to the wrong decision.
Of course, this only makes things worse financially, but the investor gets to delude himself that the disaster is not really so bad or will come right over time. Such behavior is referred to as "negative perseverance" or "regret avoidance", and is also likened to "effort justification". Whatever the name, this behavior needs to be avoided.
The concept of cognitive dissonance will be familiar to those who have studied marketing. Buyers often rationalize that they bought the right product after all, even when, deep down, they know it was a mistake. For instance, a buyer may seriously regret buying a manual car, but kid himself that it was great idea because of the lower gas bill.
The field of investment is particularly prone to this kind of mind game. (To learn more, check out our Behavioral Finance Tutorial.)
Why Do People Behave This Way?
Basically, the investor unwittingly has a greater fear of admitting to himself and perhaps to others, that he made a mistake, than of the consequences of keeping a bad investment. This very dysfunctional form of behavior, caused largely by pride or stubbornness, leads either to total passivity or to selling too late.
Individuals strive for harmony and consistency, hence the notion "if I just leave it alone, it'll be ok". The problem is that when investments go wrong, particularly horribly wrong, radical and above all rapid action is generally essential. Taking losses or a major portfolio restructuring often causes the mental conflict of cognitive dissonance. This is a singularly unpleasant state of mind and can be resolved very unsatisfactorily, by collecting arguments to justify the original mistake that has now manifested itself in the form of big losses. (For more, see Words From The Wise On Active Management.)
With respect to investment, this means, for instance, clinging to an all-equity portfolio which is in the process of plummeting, rather than selling out in order to minimize losses and putting the money into something else that is likely to go up right now. Or at least, something that is likely to rise a lot sooner than the bear market turning bullish.
The Nature of Cognitive Dissonance
On the buyer side, what makes the process particularly problematic in the investment field, is that there is a lot one can regret. You can fret and sweat over losses caused by taking excessive risk, or lost opportunities caused by not buying a great asset in time. You can also torture yourself about selling too late or not buying enough, or listening to your advisor or friends, or indeed not listening to them. In short, you can be sorry about so many things in so many ways.
On the selling side, people who do not treat their customers well still generally want to believe that they are honest. But at the same time, they want to make the sale. So they solve the contradiction with self delusion along the lines of "I have no choice, I will lose my job if I don't make the sales quota" or "if he agrees to it, it's his decision and his problem". Or "it's a perfectly standard portfolio", even when it is totally unsuitable for the investor in question and/or the timing is inappropriate.
In extreme cases, the Bernie Madoffs of this world get accused of suppressing their emotions and ethics altogether. Indeed, this is how many intrinsically honest people cope with dishonest environments. (Learn more in How To Avoid Falling Prey To The Next Madoff Scam.)
Preventing Cognitive Dissonance
A sensible, diversified portfolio is a great way to prevent this problem. If you do not have too much or too little of anything, the odds are you will feel all right about your investments. Of course, if you take big gamble and it pays off, you will feel wonderful, but if it goes sour on you, there will be a lot of misery and rationalizing, which is just not worth it for most people. Balance, prudence and a good mix is the only sensible approach for the average investor. And as always, shop around and inform yourself fully before you buy. Do not rely more on other people than you have to. (For more on this topic, see Diversification: Protecting Portfolios From Mass Destruction.)
Be sure that you understand what you are doing and why. No self-delusion up front will help prevent the "need" for it later on. Never try to fool yourself or anyone else. We all make mistakes and the only thing to do is get them right. The worst thing you can do is pursue a lost cause, to continue flogging the proverbial dead horse. It is important to take a step back and consider the whole process objectively.
On the selling side, the same basic principles apply. Resist the temptation to sell things that should not be sold. It may be a good idea to offer a fee-only service, which yields no commission at all. Your customers will be grateful and there will be no nasty comebacks and complaints. Everyone will sleep better, the world will be a better place and over time, this will surely pay off financially as well. (For more, see Paying Your Investment Advisor – Fees Or Commissions?)