Fundamentals of behavioral finance: Confirmation bias

Why clients seek information that supports their opinions—even if that means missing out on the bigger picture

Key takeaways

  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information that supports a person’s beliefs.

  • This bias may lead investors to focus only on information that reinforces their opinions about an investment.

  • Selectively choosing which information to use can lead to a lack of diversification and investments that are too risky.

  • Good communication between advisors and their clients can help combat confirmation bias.

  • Shifting a client’s focus away from short-term market moves and toward their long-term goals may help avoid the fallout from the confirmation bias.

 

In this series, we explore some of the most common biases exhibited by investors, and discuss how advisors can help their clients overcome them. This article focuses on confirmation bias, a cognitive bias that can cause investors to narrow their focus and miss opportunities.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek information that supports what we already believe, and ignore information that contradicts these beliefs.

Confirmation bias operates in many areas of our lives. It’s visible in the news junkie who only consumes media that supports their world view, and in the pessimist who focuses on the negatives in their life while ignoring all the positives.

In the investing world, confirmation bias leads people to cling to preconceived notions about their investments, while discounting information that contradicts these ideas. For example, a client whose holdings are concentrated in a specific sector or group of stocks may only absorb good news and ignore bad news regarding these investments.

The BeFi Barometer 2020 study, conducted by Cerulli Associates and sponsored by Charles Schwab Investment Management in collaboration with the Investments & Wealth Institute, found that advisors saw confirmation bias as one of the top behavioral biases affecting their clients’ investment decisions.1

Why does it matter?

Confirmation bias may lead to clients overinvesting in a particular stock or sector. For example, a client who is committed to owning shares of a particular company may ignore unfavorable news about that company.

Focusing too narrowly on a particular type of investment makes clients vulnerable to company- or sector-specific downturns, which in turn can leave their portfolios misaligned with their long-term goals and risk profiles.

Confirmation bias also can keep clients from taking a realistic view of market conditions. For instance, they may focus on some expert opinions while ignoring others. As a result, investors may make decisions based on incomplete information.

What can you do about it?

Combatting confirmation bias requires open and effective communication. Start by querying clients about their long-held investment opinions, so that you understand their perspective thoroughly. Then, gather an array of viewpoints and present clients with information that provides alternative points of view or adds nuance to their long-held investment beliefs.

Set up systems to help override clients’ cognitive impulses around investing. This may include creating objective trading rules around when clients can buy, sell, and rebalance their holdings. Such strategies can help them avoid making sudden investment decisions driven by their confirmation bias.

It can also help to remind clients to take a long-term view of their investments using a goals-based portfolio construction process. Shifting their focus toward their goals and away from their individual investments can help them more easily embrace proper diversification.

Overcoming a client’s confirmation bias doesn’t just lead to potentially better outcomes for your clients: Since it requires that you and your clients work closely together, it’s an opportunity to strengthen relationships and improve retention over the long term.

Omar Aguilar

Omar Aguilar, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President,
Chief Investment Officer, Passive Equity and Multi-Asset Strategies
Charles Schwab Investment Management, Inc.

About the author

Omar Aguilar

Omar Aguilar, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President, Chief Investment Officer of Passive Equity and Multi-Asset Strategies