Fooled by a Percentage Into Catching Falling Knife!

One of my favorite experiments in class involves asking my students the following question:

“Suppose that you visit a furniture store in a mall to buy a lamp for your bedroom. You find a lamp you like and it has a list price of Rs. 5,000. Happy with this deal, when you approach the sales representative ready to buy the lamp you picked, she informs you that one of their stores which is just a ten-minute walk from there is closing down and you can buy the same lamp over there for Rs 1,000 less. Please raise your hand if the 20% discount is sufficient incentive for you to walk ten minutes to the other store to buy your lamp.”

About 70% of the students raise their hands.

My next question is then addressed to only those who raised their hands. I ask them:

“Suppose that you visit a car showroom to buy a car and after checking out many models, you find one you like. It costs Rs. 500,000, you are told by the sales representative. However, she also informs you that one of their showrooms which was just a ten-minute walk from there is closing down and you can buy the same car over there for Rs. 499,000 or Rs. 1,000 less. How many of you would like to walk ten minutes to go over to the other showroom to save Rs. 1,000?”

I hardly see a hand raised.

Somehow, students who were happy to walk ten minutes to save Rs 1,000 on a lamp are reluctant to walk ten minutes to save Rs. 1,000 on a car!

What is going on here?

Indeed, when I reframe both questions again, in a different form, students appeared puzzled:

“Would you walk ten minutes to increase your net worth by Rs. 1,000?”

Why would a man decline to save Rs 1,000 in one situation, and gladly accept it in another, with the same effort required in both situations?

Isn’t a penny saved a penny earned,?

To most people, apparently not, suggests research in behavioral economics. Part of the reason is a bias arising out of a phenomenon called the “contrast effect” which deals with how we treat multiple pieces of information presented to us one after the other.

If you put something sweet in your mouth immediately after tasting a lemon, it will taste much sweeter than it really is. The contrast between sweet and sour gets accentuated if one experiences one taste immediately after the other.

If you meet someone very attractive at a party, and immediately after that you are introduced to someone who, in contrast, is merely average looking, then the average person would appear to be more unattractive to you than would have been the case had you not met the very attractive person beforehand.

Similarly, a saving of Rs. 1,000 looks much bigger than it really is when it is contrasted with a purchase price of Rs 5,000 for a lamp, (a 20 percent saving!) but looks much smaller than it really is when it is contrasted with a purchase price of Rs 500,000 for a car (only 0.2 percent saving).

It does not matter to a man that a Rs 1,000 saving will have the same effect on his net worth whether he saves it on a lamp or a car. Somehow the presence of a 20 percent reduction triggers an irrational response in his brain.

The brain, operating at the subconscious level, is often influenced by the presence of false “anchors”. Anchors are pieces of information to which a mind tends to latch on to while making a decision. And the human mind will often latch on to false anchors created by various influences like availability or contrast.

In a classic experiment, researchers asked a group of people if the Mississippi River in the US is longer or shorter than 500 miles (the anchor). Most people responded that it was longer than 500 miles. They were then asked to estimate the length of that river. The average answer was about 1,000 miles.

A second group, in contrast, was asked if the Mississippi River is longer or shorter than 5,000 miles and were then asked to estimate its length. Most people responded that it was shorter than 5,000 miles but the average length of the River in this group was about 2,000 miles!

The actual length of the Mississippi River is 2,348 miles but false anchors of 500 miles or 5,000 miles tend to pull the average answers towards them!

In the lamp vs. car experiment, students who chose to walk ten minutes to save Rs 1,000 while buying a lamp but who refused to walk ten minutes to save the same amount of money while buying a car, were suffering from “anchoring bias”. Their minds were latching on to the wrong anchor of a large percentage savings on a list price, instead of latching on to the right anchor of their personal net worth.

Anchors are important, of course, but one has to be careful when deciding if an anchor is valid or not. A man who feels miserable because he dropped Rs. 500 from his pocket which had only Rs. 1,000 in it even though his personal net worth is Rs. fifty lacs is suffering from an anchoring bias. He incorrectly identifies the money in his pocket as a valid anchor as opposed to his net worth. He is also suffering from bias arising out of contrast effect because Rs 500 lost out of Rs 1,000 in his pocket looks very big to him in percentage terms.

In contrast, a rational investor who practices wide diversification, knows that its inevitable that some of his picks will turn out to be duds. He does, not, however, let such outcomes make him miserable because he has trained himself to latch on to the right anchors such as the size of his portfolio, and not the percentage lost in a single position.

A stock may have fallen 50 percent from its all-time peak in a market crash, may have gone below its 52-week low price, may have fallen below the price at which its shares were offered in a hot IPO, or may have fallen below par value. None of these things mean that the stock is cheap. A stock is cheap only if its price has fallen well below than what the company is rationally worth on a per-share basis.

In contrast with underlying value which is the right anchor to latch on to, all time peak prices, 52-week low price, IPO price, and par value are all false anchors. If you blindly buy stocks merely because they have fallen well below some false anchors, thereby allowing contrast effect to make you feel that they are much cheaper than they really might be, then you are functionally equivalent to the man who is trying to catch a falling knife.

And that, you will agree, can hurt.

Sanjay Bakshi is a Visiting Professor at Management Development Institute, Gurgaon.

The above piece was published in Outlook Profit, a new fortnightly magazine published by the Outlook group. Reproduced with permission.

4 thoughts on “Fooled by a Percentage Into Catching Falling Knife!

  1. alex says:

    Great article!I recently read about a similar experiment as the one in this post. A sum of money was placed in front of two participants, one was told to split the money between them, the other that if he rejected the split they would both get nothing. The second participant therefore had two possible outcomes; receive nothing or accept whatever was offered. He should accept any offer. However, researches found that many people rejected offers of 10-20% because they seemed unfair.This is another example of simple economic assumptions failing to predict human behaviour. It is also a good reminder that if we are to become rational (in an economic sense), which should be every investor’s goal, then we need to overcome our emotional responses to

  2. Excellent article. I think anchoring bias is very strong and I still find it difficult to buy a stock which has gone up 40-50% in the last one year, though my own conservative estimation shows that it still trading at 40-50% discount to its intrinsic value.

  3. […] Catching a falling knife is a dangerous but not as dangerous perhaps as jumping out of a plane with a parachute which opens up 99% of the time. If only the partners of LTCM had thought it that way, maybe they would have acted differently. […]

  4. […] “Traders who want to buy today and tender in just a few days. Obviously if the stock has risen to Rs 96, this means that the offer is just about to close. The fellow who buys at 96 from you and sells it at 100 to the offerer makes 4 bucks on 96. That’s a 4.2% return. If he is going to make that return, say, in a week, then his annualised return comes to 217%. And you made a lower IRR in percentage terms, but look at it this way: who got most of the juice out of the trade? You! You let him have the rest of it because you figured that the remaining part of the return is just not worth the additional risk. There are two very important lessons here. One, don’t be fooled by a percentage” […]

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