There’s no doubt behavioral finance research has had a tremendous influence on our general understanding of human behavior. From loss aversion, to choice architecture, to the “Bottom Dollar” effect, and more – behavioral finance research has enhanced both our understanding of real-world financial behaviors, and what financial advisors must watch out for while trying to assist their clients in making wise(r) financial decisions.
However, despite its tremendous influence, behavioral finance research leaves a lot to be desired. Most notably, while behavioral finance has taught us a lot about how people behave, it tells us very little about why we behave how we do – and understanding why we behave the way we do is important to ensuring that we understand the circumstances in which biases, heuristics, and other behavioral quirks may lead us astray (so that we can then avoid or manage those circumstances).
In this guest post, Dr. Derek Tharp – lead Researcher for Kitces.com, and an assistant professor of finance at the University of Southern Maine – examines the weakness of behavioral finance as a field, and why evolutionary psychology may likely grow to become a more useful framework for understanding how humans make financial decisions.
In essence, the “problem” with behavioral finance research is that it is largely atheoretical, functioning more as an ever-growing catalog of human behaviors which do not align with traditional assumptions of rational behavior. Of course, cataloging interesting behavioral phenomena is not inherently a bad thing to do, and there is tremendous value in the cataloging work that has been done. But the reality is that a mere catalog of interesting financial behaviors is less insightful than a true theoretical perspective, especially when it comes to providing any real insight about what individuals (or their advisors) should do about those problem behaviors.
By contrast, evolutionary psychology, which applies Darwinian evolutionary principles to human psychology, can not only provide a rationale for why we engage in behavior such financial behaviors as the endowment effect or hyperbolic discounting, but also insight into the conditions in which we are most inclined to be misled. Specifically, humans must be most concerned when a bias or heuristic was functionally useful within the environment in which our ancestors evolved, but is no longer as relevant within our modern world. Further, evolutionary psychology also provides insights into areas such as communication, positive psychology, and psychopathology, suggesting that evolutionary psychology has much to offer financial counselors and therapists as well.