The psychology of investing – knowing when to cut your losses

By April 16, 2021Investments
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Sometimes, investors can be their own worst enemies. As Warren Buffett once said: “If you cannot control your emotions, you cannot control your money”. We explore the emotional side of investing, identify some of the negative behaviours that frequently trip people up, and we also give some advice on keeping emotion out of your investments.


Recognising and understanding investor behaviour

It is worth remembering that money is an incredibly emotional subject for people. People’s relationship with money usually begins at a very early age, and emotional responses can often overpower rational thinking when things are not going as well as a person had hoped.

Perhaps the biggest challenge investors must come to terms with is their own attitude towards investing. Studies have shown that it is more painful to lose money than it is pleasurable to win money – even when the amount is the same. Many investors find this aspect about themselves hard to come to terms with. Ingrained attitudes often make people too risk-averse when it comes to investing, which can often mean they miss out on significant returns over the longer term. To avoid this, you should think about some of your own personal psychological biases before deciding whether to buy or sell any investment.


Pride and prejudice

It is also common for investors to feel unable to admit when they’ve made a mistake. One of the most frequent examples of this we see is where investors continue to hold on to the shares in a failing company, in the hope that it will eventually recover. The old investment wisdom is to “run your profits and cut your losses”, but most people tend to do the opposite. They sell their profitable investments too soon and they let their loss-making investments keep going while they wait for a change in fortune.

People often let emotions sway their investment decisions because they have a personal attachment to the investments they own. Perhaps these investments were left to you by a relative, or they did particularly well in the early years after you first bought them. We often make the point that investments or companies don’t have feelings or attachments to you, so why have feelings or attachments to them? Taking a personally detached view from your investments is a good way to start making better investment decisions overall.


Forgetting that past performance is no guide to the future

Every investment comes with the warning that past performance is no guide to the future, but it remains a warning that most people struggle to heed. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of ‘outcome bias’, which is the tendency to evaluate a decision based on the outcome of previous events, without giving enough consideration to how those past events developed.

To put it another way, you may decide to back the same horse in the Grand National that won last year’s race. But all of the factors that resulted in that horse winning (the condition of the horse on the day, the ground conditions, the weather, how competitor horses fared, and on and on) are not going to be replicated identically this year. Even if the same horse does in fact win again, it will have faced different conditions when achieving victory this time around.

Simply relying on the past to do the hard work for you, instead of carrying out helpful research and finding the right investment for right now, is unlikely to lead to positive investment results over the longer term.


Poor timing

Emotional investing is often an exercise in bad market timing. Greed and fear are powerful motivators, and one of the main reasons why investors lose money is they execute an investment decision out of greed or fear (or both), at a time when it is not in their best interest to do so. Examples of the greed/fear dynamic at work include:

  • Seeing others making large profits on an investment and jumping in without thinking about the risks involved. This is also the “fear of missing out” (Bitcoin is a good example of this).
  • During periods of market volatility, investors often sell their investments while values are falling, thereby crystalising their losses and potentially missing out on any recovery.
  • Following the herd, and simply doing whatever the rest of the market is doing.


So how can you stop being emotional with your investments?

Emotional investing usually takes place when events trigger our own individual responses to money and convince us that we should behave differently because the stakes are higher than we had expected. Sadly, there is not much that any of us can do about human behaviour, apart from being aware of it and learning to control it, rather have it control us.

But there are two ways to invest that help to lower the emotional stakes and reduce the risk of getting the timing of the investment wrong. The first of these is pound-cost averaging.


Pound-cost averaging

One of the most effective ways to remove emotion from investment decisions is to use pound-cost averaging. This is a strategy where you plan your investments in advance, and then invest regular amounts at set intervals. The benefit of this approach is that it removes the risk of regretting your investment. Instead, investing smaller amounts means that you get to buy fewer shares while the price is high, but more shares when the price is lower.

The key to the pound-cost averaging strategy is to stay the course and recognising that those periods when the value of your investment is lower can actually work in your favour over the longer term.



The second most effective way to reduce the impact of emotion on your investments is through diversification. Holding a larger number of investments means that the impact of market volatility on your overall returns is more likely to diminish (as not all of your investments will behave in the same way). In normal market conditions, a well-diversified investment portfolio should offer some comfort that the losses suffered by some of your investments are offset by gains made in others.

However, it is important to understand what counts as true diversification. It’s not just about owning shares in a few different companies, or investment funds from different providers. At FAS, we can help you to create a diversified portfolio that invests across a wide range of different asset classes, geographical regions and industry sectors, as well as investments that invest for income or capital growth. An investment portfolio made up of all these various types of investments should offer increased protection that leaves your investments well-placed to cope with a range of different market conditions, and leaves you feeling much less stressed about what could go wrong.


Final thought

Investing without emotion is easier said than done. If it was easy, there would be far fewer headlines of stock market tumbles. But just because other investors struggle to keep their emotions in check, this doesn’t mean you have to follow them. An understanding of your own attitude towards money, and personal risk tolerance, is a good starting point.

It helps to be able to take a step back to see what is driving current market conditions and valuations. Once you can recognise that others are acting irrationally, you stand a better chance of leaving them to get on with it. Or, to use another Warren Buffet pearl of wisdom: “Outstanding long-term results are produced primarily by avoiding dumb decisions, rather than by making brilliant ones.”


If you are interested in discussing your investment portfolio with one of our experienced financial planners at FAS, please get in touch here.


This content is for information purposes only. It does not constitute investment advice or financial advice.