The Psychology of Risk
By: Kathleen Gurney, Ph.D

Whereas some bulls might describe this market as a stock buyer's dream, the advisers I have spoken with are describing it as a nightmare for many of their clients.

Modern Portfolio Theory has given us an abundance of literature on objective measures and definitions of risk, and supposedly, the most effective methods for financially managing them. Risk as a subjectively experienced emotional state, however, has received much less attention, even though most investors and advisors acknowledge that how they respond psychologically to making decisions under conditions of uncertainty can have a dramatic influence on their financial success.

Definition of Risk

Risk is a subjectively or personally experienced emotional state influenced by the ability to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Risk, by definition, contains important subjective elements not typically considered or evaluated by the investment community. It is the subjective risk of investors which will determine perceptions, reactions, satisfaction, suitability and perhaps even success. If investors' subjective definitions of risk don't enable them to sustain their strategies when they make rational sense, then they will create their own financial loss in selling impulsively.

Any attempt to categorize investments according to an objective risk profile can be misinterpreted by investors because of their internal or psychological risk profile which ultimately predicts their reactions and perceptions of their investments and the satisfaction they reap from them. They have their own subjective realities and definitions of risk which prevent them from understanding the objective definitions of risk.

Lowering The Chance of Objective Risk Is Not Lowering Subjective Risk

As investment advisers, you can employ a variety of well known techniques to lower the "chance" of loss: dollar cost averaging, diversification, careful asset allocation, and buy and sell disciplines. However, even though you may choose to emphasize and lower objective risk, you must still deal with the subjective reality of investors' emotional responses to risk.

It is the psychological impact of the "consequence" of a financial loss on investors' decision-making that makes the impact on how investors conceptualize risk. Their subjective realities are their objective realities and don't necessarily make rational sense.

For most investors, risk is a concept related to loss, which is subjectively vs. objectively defined. It is based on feelings vs. facts. Because risk and loss are intimately connected, particularly the consequences of loss, how an individual has experienced and adapted to loss throughout life becomes a significant issue in one's approach to risk. All individuals experience both real loss and emotional loss. If one has not resolved former real or emotional losses, there is a tendency toward blindly eliminating losing situations in the face of downside loss and/or volatility. They experience an almost panic like psychological urge to divest themselves of the psychological and paper position of loss without first understanding whether the fundamentals warrant such actions.

If resolved, they'll be able to experience real vs. emotional reactions to loss and be able to feel ok and come through it. They would have more flexibility and adaptability to handle future uncertainty and would not shy away from future experiences.

Giving investors an opportunity to reflect on their real vs. emotional losses through interviewing and integrating that knowledge into their current investing style not only alleviates much unnecessary panic; it also prevents significant denial of loss. They need to ease back into investing. They'll eventually adapt.


© 2022 Kathleen Gurney, Ph.D. All rights reserved