Small Change

Overcoming the fear of losing money

One can overcome aversion to loss by looking at risky decisions differently: Social psychologist


Just like American hedge fund manager James Altucher, I have a fear of losing money - but unlike him, I have yet to learn how to overcome it.

Mr Altucher said he was probably afraid of following in his father's footsteps - dreaming big but never really achieving his financial goals.

"But there was always this constant sense of anticipation and then eventually he went totally broke and his business went out of business," he wrote in a article. "I was always afraid that this was gonna happen to me, and I guess I still am afraid."

My anxiety is probably linked to being a compulsive saver, which I've written about before, but there's also a scientific reason for it.

Reuters reported in 2010 a study explaining why people are afraid of losing money, turning down gambles that are likely to lead to gain. It identified the culprit to be the amygdala, "an almond-shaped centre in the brain that controls fear and certain other acute emotions".

"The study of two women with brain lesions that made them unafraid to lose on a gamble showed the amygdala, the brain's fear centre, activates at the very thought of losing money," the article noted.

The researchers had also already known of loss aversion, an idea first demonstrated by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.


Social psychologist Adam Alter explained in a 2014 New Yorker report: "The most consistent response came when I asked some of the gamblers whether they would consider playing a simple, hypothetical game: I would toss a coin. If it came up heads, I would give them 10 dollars; if it came up tails, they would give me 10 dollars.

"This is a perfectly fair gamble - fairer than many casino games, which are designed to favour the house - but the appeal of winning 10 dollars wasn't enough to overcome the potential pain of losing 10 dollars. Almost all of them said that they would prefer not to play."

He said "the pain of losing 10 dollars looms larger than the gain of winning 10 dollars because most humans are loss-averse".

This aversion was what led to hasty money decisions, buying and selling a stock for a smaller profit because of hearsay and then seeing the price rise 6 per cent (I've since stopped tracking it), and even inaction on placing funds in a trading account in United States dollars.

"You should put in more as each transfer has a cost, and the dollar has gone up since we last spoke," said a well-meaning friend, who constantly reminds me that I'm not working my money hard enough.

However, each time I think I've decided how much money to start with, or should I say part with, I imagine losing it all in a flash. This is irrational as I know I'm not going to put everything in just one stock.

The only irrational fear I really should be looking at is in the market. Mr Altucher, who also opened some 20 firms, of which 17 failed, called that fear the financial version of fight or flight. Fighting it brings "solid opportunities at a huge discount".

I've learnt it takes years to learn how to manage your emotions when it comes to investing.

Long-term investor Ethan Lee first started trading on the New York Stock Exchange 10 years ago, thinking it was "a fun and easy way to make money". He did make money in the beginning but suffered heavy losses.

"The process of digging myself out of this catastrophe was draining and tiring... (but) it served as the foundation for my trading.

"I took a short break from trading while resetting myself, in the process fine-tuning my ability to spot charts and patterns with the best chance of success.

"Of course the 'what if' fear still continued to circulate within me and even till this day it is always at the back of my head whenever I trade."

So before a trade, he mentally goes through the exit strategies should the worst happen and reminds himself to not be greedy.

Investor Samuel Wong simply told me: "If historically, over a 50-year period, the S&P 500 Index has gone up by about an annualised 7, 8 per cent, why worry?" That's how he stays the course.

He also says it's about thinking differently. "Instead of thinking about the possibility of losing my cash, I know that I'm losing at least 0.6 per cent each month that I'm not invested in the index.

"Timing the market on a consistent basis is close to impossible, so it's easier to gradually invest by dollar-cost averaging," adds Mr Wong.

How Mr Altucher overcame his fear was realising "prior performance ... is not a predictor of future performance", but even he has to constantly convince himself.

The good news is, as Mr Alter, the social psychologist and author, says, you can overcome your aversion to loss by looking at risky decisions differently.

"One excellent technique borrows from thousands of successful stock traders," he notes.

"Traders make dozens of risky investment decisions every day, but they overcome the fear of losing money on any individual decision by focusing instead on those decisions in aggregate: instead of agonising over each trade, they pay attention to the broader portfolio.

"This technique, known as broad bracketing, isn't just a mental trick; it's actually a good way to think about life decisions. It's unwise to focus on each financial decision in isolation when you're constantly drawing from the same pool of funds.

"Instead, it is better to consider the effect of each decision on the others, and how these decisions affect you cumulatively over time."

Look at the bigger picture, change your mindset and stick to the idea of compounding.

I found the author's words reinforced by Mr Altucher's anecdote of a friend's grandma who said there are only two types of decisions - decisions made out of fear and decisions made out of growth.

Many of my own decisions, in life and of money, have been based on fear. Case in point: That 6 per cent rise I'd never enjoy.

He goes on to say fear-based decisions never worked out for him, "because I was giving power to someone else". I now realise why they did not work out for me either.

I've learnt it's really about overcoming fears in spite of yourself.

For now, I just need to banish the fear of losing money and put my money where my mouth is.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline Overcoming the fear of losing money. Subscribe