Sunday, January 16, 2011

Group “Think”

Somewhere over the course of your academic or professional career, I’m sure you’ve been exposed to a group exercise dealing with being stranded in an inhospitable place (the moon, or maybe a deserted island) with a limited amount of supplies, and a limited amount of time to choose from those supplies to ensure your survival.

In these exercises, you’re asked to make those picks as an individual exercise, and then put together with a group to make group choices. Not only are the group choices generally different, they are nearly always “better” (more likely to ensure survival) than those made by individuals. The point of the exercise is, of course, that we make better decisions working together as a team than we do trying to make them on our own—and it generally works out that way.

Sure, that may work in hypothetical situations where none of the group members has any particular expertise. But if I’ve crash-landed on the moon, and there’s a trained astronaut in the group—well, let’s just say you’re probably better off following their lead than putting things up for a vote.

That said, to me, the point of that exercise isn’t necessarily that group decisions are better than individuals’—they frequently aren’t, IMHO—but that groups we are part of make different decisions than we might as individuals.


Now, sometimes that inures to our benefit. There is certainly value in a collective experience/perspective, and there is an important collaborative element in just being able to bounce ideas off other people. Moreover, there are times when individual members of the group have knowledge and/or expertise that everyone doesn’t have. And let’s face it—plan sponsors make a lot of individual decisions, but even relatively small employers are inclined to rely on the collective experience of a group when it comes to making plan design and investment decisions. That’s supposed to make for better decisions but, as any retirement plan adviser can attest, not always.

Behavioral finance purports to explain why people make the financial choices they do, choices that are frequently at odds with what “rational” decisionmaking would support. In recent years, a lot of attention and focus have been directed toward behavioral finance, particularly as it applies to participant decisionmaking or the lack thereof (in fact, thus far most of those behavioral finance-oriented solutions – automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration, QDIAs - have been directed not toward helping participants make better choices, but rather toward making better choices for the participants).

In fact, in the cover story of the January issue of PLANSPONSOR, Gary Mottola, Associate Director of Investor Education at the Washington-based Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), observes: “Plan sponsors are very aware of the biases that affect individuals, but I do not think a lot of sponsors are aware of these biases” that can affect them. Plan sponsors make most of their decisions in groups and committees, so they are vulnerable to both group and individual biases.”

What kinds of biases? Well, there are things like “shared-information bias,” where groups tend to focus on things of common knowledge/interest, even if it isn’t the most pertinent/critical. My favorite is “group polarization,” which speaks to a group’s tendency to make more-extreme decisions—both in cautious and risky directions—than individuals. In essence, the group tends to reinforce its own prejudices—and then some.

Even the best committees can make bad decisions, not because they aren’t well-intentioned, or even well-equipped to make complex financial decisions, but because they may make decisions based on dynamics of which they aren’t even aware.

What’s ironic, IMHO, is how intertwined the acknowledgement of such behaviors has become in thoughtful plan designs—and yet how infrequently we acknowledge their impact on those who make the complex financial decisions that affect the participant decisions.


- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Check out “Misbehavioral Finance

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