Regret aversion is a construct in behavioral finance theory that suggests investing decisions are, at least in part, driven by fear of later regretting a “wrong” choice. And this isn’t just some psychological mumbo jumbo. Functional MRI neuroimaging studies of the brain have demonstrated a biological correlate to this phenomenon in the form of increased activity within the medial orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. The fear is real — and it can have serious consequences for participants.
How Does Regret Aversion Impact Investors?
There’s no singular effect of regret aversion on investor decision making because the fear of regret may relate to either taking action or not taking action. And that fear may translate into greater risk-taking — or excessive attempts to minimize risk.
Carried on a wave of exuberance and fear of missing out (FOMO), investors may jump on a “hot stock,” even when the purchase is not rationally justified by its underlying fundamentals. Or they may avoid engaging in the market altogether after going through a painful downturn, missing out on typical recovery cycles. Regret aversion can also lead investors to hang on to a poorly performing investment too long, not wanting to lock in losses, even when that’s exactly the decision that’s called for to achieve a better long-term result.
While regret aversion can motivate us to take positive action, such as starting up a fitness routine to avoid regretting the health consequences of not taking care of ourselves years from now, it’s not a sensible approach to making most investment and retirement planning decisions.
So, What Can Be Done?
- Teach 401(k) plan participants about regret aversion.Educate employees about the principles of behavioral finance. Learning to identify and combat faulty thinking can help people make better personal finance and investment decisions. Use real-world examples to provide historical data about bubbles, market recoveries and long-term returns when participants stay invested through down markets.
- Encourage participants to use a rules-based investment decision process.Fiduciaries are not mandated to produce positive outcomes for participants, only establish and maintain prudent processes regarding their retirement plans. Similarly, employees should focus on establishing and adhering to a sound investment decision-making approach rather than trying to see around every corner along the way.
- Foster an attitude of acceptance.Explain to participants why an investment strategy wholly oriented around the goal of avoiding regret might not yield the results they desire. They should understand that taking on some degree of risk is inherent in pursuing higher returns. Encourage trust in the process and acceptance that logging some losses along the way is an expected part of it.
- Leverage regret aversion to encourage beneficial investor behavior.Even with education, you simply can’t completely “deprogram” regret aversion from every participant’s brain. And if it’s going to exert some influence, make sure you use it to foster positive behavior. How will employees feel at retirement if they come up short after delaying plan enrollment, failing to escalate contributions or steering clear of all but the most conservative investments?
We’ve all had situations in life when we did the “right” thing but didn’t get the result we wanted. Just because an investment decision didn’t pan out doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a “bad” one. No one has a crystal ball. And we shouldn’t abandon sound principles just because they can’t promise success 100% of the time.
Regret is natural. And it can even be helpful when it motivates us to make better future decisions. Regret in itself isn’t the problem — the excessive fear of regret is.
It may be useful to reframe the concept of a “mistake” for participants as succumbing to fear as opposed to trusting the sound strategy you’ve established together to achieve their retirement goals. In the end, the best way to help participants may be to teach them to regret fear — as opposed to fear regret — when it comes to making investment decisions.
If your 401(k) plan has an advisor, they may be able to assist you in creating an educational program to benefit your employees.