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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Familiarity Bias, COVID-19, and Personal Finance

 Heuristics are mental shortcuts that people use in daily life. An article from the Association for Psychological Science includes a story about poor choices made by experienced skiers, some who died in avalanches. Subsequent research identified “familiarity bias” as a contributing factor in many of the avalanche incidents.

Familiarity Bias

Simply put, people experience familiarity bias when they stick with what they know. Doing so helps us make quick consumer decisions, such as selecting a favorite brand of cereal or yogurt or driving a familiar route. It saves time. People are also generally more comfortable with familiar things and dislike the ambiguity of the unknown.

There is also a downside to familiarity bias. When people think they know something well, they often “let their guard down” and make serious judgment errors. Things that are familiar seem “safe” and unthreatening, causing people to ignore danger signals, like the experienced skiers did. Acceptance by others- and not doing something differently than people we know- is also a key factor in decisions that people make.

A Personal Experience

Recently, I attended an outdoor “parking lot party” at the Florida community where I live. Masks were “recommended” but not very visible. Neither was social distancing, except between my husband and I and another couple, who were sitting at least eight feet away.

When one of their neighbors approached my husband to show him a cell phone picture, I popped my dangling mask over my nose and stepped back. It was awkward, of course, but I felt safer. It also occurred to me that people at the party were like those ill-fated skiers. They let their guard down because they were sitting with people that they knew who were not wearing masks (familiarity bias + acceptance bias).

COVID-19 Application of Familiarity Bias

As Dr. Fauci and other health experts urge caution about indoor Thanksgiving celebrations next month, they are indirectly discussing familiarity bias (i.e., not believing that your family members or friends can infect you with COVID-19 because you personally know them). With 50,000+ new cases per day, however, there are no guarantees.

Ever the diplomat, Dr. Fauci noted on Good Morning America today that each family needs to calculate the risk-benefit of holiday gatherings. He then discussed specific factors to consider including vulnerable family members with underlying conditions and out-of-town guests who could sit at airports and on planes or trains for hours.

If risks outweigh the benefits, it is probably best not to get together, however difficult or “strange” the decision to forego a traditional family Thanksgiving holiday feels. Families need to have those conversations now and make alternative plans such as small group meals and Zoom gatherings with far-away family and friends.  If you do decide to get together, set firm expectations on mask-wearing.

Personal Finance Applications of Familiarity Bias

Familiarity bias is evident in a number of personal finance decisions (or non-decisions) including:

o   Failure to compare financial institutions for the best rates on loans (APRs) and savings (APYs)

o   Failure to consider investing in non-U.S. stock or mutual fund investments (i.e., home bias)

o   Failure to periodically compare insurance company premiums or other large purchases

o   Purchasing large quantities of stock because you use a company’s products or work there 

Familiarity is one of many behavioral finance biases that affect daily decisions. Every workshop on behavioral finance that I have attended suggests that the best thing people can do to counteract negative effects of various biases is to be aware of them. Awareness can inform actions to mitigate cognitive errors that result in poor decisions.

My posts typically provide financial tips. This one could also save a life. The next time you are faced with decisions about spending, investing, or getting together with others (especially indoors for an extended period of time), stop and ask yourself if the seemingly “safe,” familiar decision is really the right one. Your health and your wealth may be at stake.

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