Behavioral Finance vs. Traditional Finance Theory

Behavioral finance can be studied from both the micro and macro levels of the economy and capital markets. Behavioral finance micro (BMFI) focuses on the behaviors of individual investors, whereas behavioral finance macro (BMFA) focuses on the behavior of the markets, questioning ideas of market efficiency. Behavioral finance challenges the idea that investors are rational at both the micro and macro levels.

Behavioral biases can be either emotional biases or cognitive errors. While emotional biases stem from feelings, intuition, or impulsive thinking, cognitive errors stem from misunderstanding data, faulty reasoning, statistical miscalculations, or memory errors. Both types of biases can lead to poor investment decisions that are not rational. BFMI suggests that these biases impact an individual’s economic decisions, and BFMA asserts that markets are subject to the effects of these collective decisions.

BMFI and BMFA differ from traditional finance theory, which assumes normative principles to model how the markets should act. In traditional finance theory, investors are supposed to act rationally (which most investors certainly do not!). They’re assumed to have access to perfect information, process that information without bias or emotion, act in a self-interested manner, and be risk-averse.

Traditional theory assumes investors make economic decisions using utility theory, where they maximize the net present value (NPV) of utility, or the benefit they receive from an action, subject to a constraint. This benefit can also be characterized as satisfaction resulting from the consumption of good and services.

Unfortunately, most investors do not make decisions in a vacuum of perfect information and process that information without bias in or emotion. Neither do they maximize the net present value of the future benefits of their choices and actions by making decisions in their own best interests with their capital. Most investors do not see the ramifications of their daily actions, let alone the results of their actions months and years in the future.

Expected utility is the total sum of utility values of results multiplied by their expected probabilities. In utility theory, rational investors are assumed to be able to clearly define their choices among any two options. The theory also assumes that investors make decisions consistently and independently of other choices. Finally, utility theory assumes that investors have continuous indifference curves and that they will make the same decisions when unfavorable outcomes are combined or weighted with more favorable outcomes.

It’s clear that the normative assumptions that traditional finance and utility theory use don’t apply to the way most investors make decisions and allocate capital. It’s clear that investors are not rational, and they don’t make consistent and independent decisions. In the next articles, we will explain why this is the case and how to properly define and understand investor behavior.

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