Dr. Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., IncBlot Behavioral Finance
As we’ve discussed in the first two parts of this series, economic decision makers are not the cold, detached, decision makers they have historically been painted to be by efficient market theorists. Quite the opposite, human behavior is marked by irrationalities and fuzzy logic based more closely on mental approximations than hard and fast rules. We have already touched upon the impact of heuristics and irrational behavior and today will turn our gaze to the third pillar of behavioral finance – framing.
Simply put, framing is an example of a cognitive bias in which people arrive at a different decision depending on how the question is framed. While homo economicus would weigh all decisions equally and disregard framing effects, actual behaviors indicate that the lens through which we view a decision has everything to do with the eventual outcome. Frames can take a number of shapes; it could be the physical place where we make a decision, whether a question is positively or negatively framed, and even the way we mentally account for the options from which we are selecting.
Consider a real-life framing example with a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Twice in the past few years, the government has tried to stimulate the economy by offering tax rebates to the hardworking citizens of the U. S. of A. Both times, these efforts have met disappointing ends, and behavioral finance may just be able to tell us why.
Belsky and Gilovich lead us toward the answer in their excellent primer, “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.” They describe a study conducted at Harvard wherein 24 students were given $25 to spend in a lab store as part of their participation in a research. Any unspent money, they were told, would be returned to them shortly via check. But wait, there’s a rub (there always is when psychologists are involved)! Half of the students were told that the $25 was a “rebate” and the other half told that it was a “bonus.” Could such a minute difference in cognitive framing have a measurable impact on spending behavior? It turns out, it could.
For those whose earnings were framed as a bonus, 84% spent some money in the lab store, a behavior mimicked by only 21% of those whose money was framed as a “rebate.” Now consider the decision of the U.S. government to give “tax rebates” to help stimulate the economy—an action that ultimately failed, probably at least in part due to framing effects. Irrational decision makers that we are, we fail to grasp the fungible nature of dollars and account for them differently based upon how they are framed in our mind. As Nick Epley, the psychologist who conducted the Harvard study, said more forcibly, “Reimbursements send people on trips to the bank. Bonuses send people on trips to the Bahamas.”
One of the most profound forms of framing effect plays on our fear of loss in times of fear or risk, or the related fear of missing out in times of plenty. This tendency, demonstrated most powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is known as “loss aversion.” The basic tenet of loss aversion is that people are more upset a loss than they are excited by an equivalent gain. Consider the comical demonstration of loss aversion that resulted from a survey conducted by Thomas Gilovich. Mr. Gilovich asked half of the respondents to a questionnaire whether or not they could save 20% of their income, to which only half said yes. The second half of the respondents was asked whether they could live on 80% of their income, to which 80% replied in the affirmative. To-may-to, to-mah-to, right? So why are the responses so different?
The first phrasing frames it as a 20% loss of spending power (there is a large body of research that indicates that saving is viewed as a loss. Silly people), whereas the second frames it more positively. Thus, equivalent financial realities are viewed through entirely different lenses that lead to decisions with profoundly different outcomes.
One of the benefits of behavioral finance is that it shines a light on the little peccadilloes that make us the flawed but lovable people we are. But irrational as we may be, we can turn the tide on ourselves and use these quirks to our personal advantage. Framing is only disadvantageous inasmuch as the frames we are applying to our money are reckless. Viewing money through the frame of a charitable contribution or a child’s college fund can impact your financial decision positively just as surely as framing it as disposable can have a negative impact. At Brinker Capital, our Personal Benchmark system accounts for the human tendency to mentally account for and frame dollars, and does so in a way that helps ensure an appropriate allocation of assets across a risk spectrum. As we hope you’re aware after taking part in this behavioral finance survey course, you are not as logical and dispassionate as you might have guessed. Whether or not you use that irrationality to your benefit or detriment is now up to you.