Recency bias is a nasty deceiver, but it can be avoided if you know what to look for.
If you’re a long-term investor, you need to get comfortable with the concept that you can and will lose money in certain market environments. To think otherwise is due to a cognitive error known as recency bias.
What is Recency (Availability) Bias by Definition?
Recency bias is a terribly sneaky trick our brains play on us, and it’s one of the primary culprits in preventing investors from achieving higher returns over time.
In behavioral economics, it describes the unfounded conviction that recent trends will continue into the near-term future. We may get spooked by a recent bear market, for example, and fear another one on the horizon, even when the objective probability of another downturn is low.
The consequence of overemphasizing recent experiences or outcomes — usually very positive or very negative ones — is that the decision-making process becomes clouded.
Understanding Recency Bias
You may recognize recency bias in other areas of your life. Many people react to rare tragedies, such as plane crashes or shark attacks, with active avoidance. Driving instead of flying or going to the pool instead of the beach. We alter our behavior based on the most available and recent information, instead of considering the true probability of a repeat event.
In investing, recency bias can have significant financial consequences. It’s natural to want to own assets that have done well recently — and conversely, to want to sell or avoid what hasn’t.
This is why more and more individual investors tend to buy stocks the longer a bull market endures, often crowding into the largest and best-known names only after they have significantly appreciated.
A good example in recent years is the so-called FAANG stocks: Facebook (Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. This follow-the-leader tendency — often amplified by media coverage — is a direct result of recency bias.
In down markets, recency bias works the same way. As stocks fell throughout 2008, trading volume intensified. Investors rushed to exit losing positions, many of them locking in losses at or near the bottom.
Then, convinced the declines would continue, far too many investors sat uninvested as the ensuing years gave birth to a new bull market and stocks renewed their upward climb.
Throughout market cycles, the underlying causes and dynamics are completely different. So, while investors look to recent events to aid their decision-making process, new patterns are emerging all the time.
Change How You Approach Long-Term Investing
The pain feels acute when stocks are down, but this concept is just as true when stocks are high and rising. The most recent week, month, or even year is no basis whatsoever for predicting what will happen next. Arriving at the most rational choice requires consideration of all the available information.
What does matter are your goals and what you need the money for. Most investors are looking for at least some long-term growth, which means choosing investments based on what will be best for you in 10, or 20, or even 30 years. In that case, your decision has little to do with what happens this year or next. It is the next decade — or several decades — that matters.
If you are nearing retirement, you should be taking less risk with your overall asset allocation. That means holding less equity as a percent of your overall portfolio. It does not mean panic selling stocks because they are down. Unless you already have all the money you need for retirement, you’ll likely need to generate some growth in the coming years. That can’t be achieved with an all-cash allocation.
In both cases, the right answer is creating an investment strategy based on your specific goals, time horizon, and circumstances, and then sticking to it. Recent market movement, whether euphoria-inducing or gut-wrenching, is only there to tempt you into abandoning your plan.
Tips to Prevent Recency Bias Moving Forward
Avoiding recency bias is difficult, even for the best of investors. Here are a few suggestions to help keep you on track and avoid falling prey to recency bias.
- Seek an accurate picture of your financial assets and liabilities. Personal Capital’s free financial tools allow you to link all of your financial accounts, including your bank, investment, retirement, credit card accounts, cryptocurrency, and more to see all of your money in one place. Understanding exactly where you stand financially is a good first step to making sound portfolio decisions.
- Set achievable financial goals based on your long-term needs. A good way to track your long-term goals is the Personal Capital Retirement Planner. It’s an easy-to-use calculator that will help you project your portfolio’s ability to reach your retirement spending goals.
- Consider professional assistance. It can be hard not to react to the market, and rules of thumb can only get you so far. After all, this is your nest egg. A professional financial advisor who is a fiduciary (meaning they’re legally obligated to act in your best interest) can help you take emotions out of your investing decision-making.
Keeping recency bias out of your investment decisions is challenging — but it’s not impossible. The next time you’re tempted to buy because the market is up, or sell because it’s down, ask yourself if those actions align with your overarching strategy. In the long run, you’ll likely be much better off sticking to a good plan and not attempting to time your way around market movements.
Author is not a client of Personal Capital Advisors Corporation and is compensated as a freelance writer. Original reporting by David Eckerly.