Saturday, October 4, 2014

How mental biases expose us to exploitation

So, you're a regular reader of the business pages and you reckon you're smarter than the average bear when it comes to financial matters. Well, here are some common "biases" to which people fall victim when making decisions about financial products. See if you can put hand on heart and swear you've never made any of these mistakes. If you can, you're a lot smarter than me.

Have you ever overspent on your credit card, or paid off less of it than you know you should? And if you pass that one, try this one: are you confident you're saving enough to ensure your retirement is as comfortable as you'd like it to be?

If you fall short on any of those, you've been affect by what psychologists call "present bias" and behavioural economists call "time-inconsistent preferences" (so in the competition to make your discipline sound smarter than it is, the economists win).

People often succumb to the urge for immediate gratification, thinking too little about the problems this will create for them down the track. It's natural - economists would say "rational" - to value the present more highly than the future. But if you go too far in that direction and end up regretting the choices you made, you've overvalued the present and undervalued the future, making your preferences inconsistent over time.

Most of us have a self-control problem in some field or other. People who are overconfident about their ability to control themselves in the future - to, say, manage heavy repayments - will make their lives more of a pain than they need to be.

Those who are more realistic often use "commitment devices" to impose self-control on themselves. The most extreme example is to cut up your credit card. Compulsory superannuation contributions for employees are a kind of government-imposed commitment device to help us save for retirement - which may be why so few people object.

Businesses exploit our self-control problems by, say, designing a gym subscription that seems cheap, but only if we keep using it for the length of the contract. Or by starting a credit card or home loan with a low interest rate (known in the trade as a "teaser" rate) but then jumping to an overly high rate.

Have you ever delayed moving to a better bank account, or putting some of your savings in a term deposit paying a higher interest rate? The experts call this "procrastination" (now that's a surprise) and class it as a version of present bias.

Examples are legion: deciding to cancel something but not getting around to it, not checking to see if the accounts and the loans and phone contracts you have are still the best available, or not putting much work into searching for the best deal in the first place.

This, too, leaves you open to exploitation by businesses. Some offer a "free trial" while knowing few people will cancel the deal when the paying period begins. Even requiring cancellation by post exploits our inertia.

Have you ever driven a hard bargain to buy a new car, but then gone overboard buying extras like rust-proofing, window-tinting or an improved security system? Have you ever bought a new TV or computer, then been sold extended warranty insurance?

Have you ever hung on to shares now worth less than you paid for them, hoping they will come good and you won't have to accept you made a bad decision to buy them?

If so, you've fallen victim to the biases of "reference dependence" in the first case and "loss aversion" in the second.

It's virtually impossible to look at something and decide what you think about it without consciously or unconsciously comparing it with something else. When buying a car, we compare and contrast all the ones we could buy. Failing that, we compare the one we're thinking of buying with our old one. If we don't have an old car to compare with, we compare having one with going by bus.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable. But we're so dependent on having something else to compare with - use as a point of reference - that if a sensible comparison isn't available we'll use one that makes no sense at all.

An old experiment asks people to estimate how many African countries are members of the United Nations. Most people have no idea. But if, before or while asking the question I mention 60, many people will seize on that number. Do I reckon the number of countries is more or less than 60? How much more, or how much less? That's an easier question to answer.

This way of making decisions is known as "anchor and adjust" and all of us use it all the time, consciously and unconsciously. Trouble is, 60 was a number plucked from the air. Experiments show that if you mention 100 rather than 60 before asking the question you get higher answers.

Point is that our reference dependence makes us easy meat for clever salespeople. We go overboard buying extras for our new car because they all seem so cheap relative to the huge sum we've just forked out to buy the car.

Likewise with extended warranties, which are notoriously overpriced for what little you get back. Anyone wanting to buy "peace of mind" is usually overcharged.

It's an empirical fact that most of us hate making losses much more than we love making gains. By about two to one, they say.

This explains why we do silly things like hanging on to dud shares we should sell - and then should put the proceeds into something with better prospects of gain.

These examples come from a report on behavioural economics prepared by Britain's new Financial Conduct Authority, which has been charged with finding ways to prevent businesses taking advantage of our lack of rational thinking. Good idea.