Fundamentals of behavioral finance: Recency bias

Why clients put too much emphasis on recent events, and what you can do help them shift their perspectives

Key takeaways

  • With recency bias, people tend to put too much emphasis on recent events.

  • This bias may lead investors to think that a current stock market downturn or rally will extend into the future.

  • Recency bias can lead clients to make short-term decisions that deviate from their financial plans.

  • Advisors can use several strategies to help clients reduce the negative impacts of recency bias.

  • Educating clients about recency bias now may help them better cope with future periods of market volatility.

In this series, we explore some of the most common biases exhibited by investors, and discuss how advisors can help their clients overcome them. This article focuses on recency bias, a cognitive bias that can lead clients to make ill-informed decisions.

What is recency bias?

Recency bias is the tendency to place too much emphasis on experiences that are freshest in your memory—even if they are not the most relevant or reliable. Would you want to go for a long ocean swim after watching Jaws? Probably not, even though the actual risk of being attacked by a shark is infinitesimally small.

In the investing world, recency bias can be hard to avoid. Clients display recency bias when they make decisions based on recent events, expecting that those events will continue into the future. It can lead them to make irrational decisions, such as following a hot investment trend or selling securities during a market downturn.

In fact, the BeFi Barometer 2021 study, conducted by Cerulli Associates and sponsored by Schwab Asset Management in collaboration with the Investments & Wealth Institute, found that recency bias is the most common behavior bias that advisors believe is affecting clients’ investment decisions.1 It ranks as the number-one bias for every generation—and is one place Millennials and the Silent Generation find common ground.

Why does it matter?

Recency bias can lead clients to deviate from their carefully laid investment plans, which can have damaging long-term consequences.

Consider the cost of chasing hot investment trends: in 2019 financial services was one of the best performing sectors in the S&P 500® Index, delivering an annual return of 32%. A client who subsequently loaded up on financial services stocks may have been disappointed that the sector returned -2% in 2020, when the S&P 500 Index returned more than 18%.

The takeaway: short-term market moves caused by recency bias can sap long-term results, making it more difficult for clients to reach their financial goals.

What can you do about it?

To combat recency bias, advisors can help their clients take a broader view of how markets tend to move over time and the larger trends that may have the biggest impact on their investment returns. During the rebalancing process, consider illustrating to clients which investments have fared well or poorly, and use that information to initiate a larger discussion about how markets tend to move over time.

It's also important to find ways to curb clients’ impulses to make decisions influenced by recent events. For instance, you might discuss limiting their daily news intake, or you might create a mutually agreed-upon waiting period before making investment decisions. Another strategy: discuss portfolio performance in terms of progress toward a client’s goals rather than focusing on individual return figures.

Working with clients to avoid the effects of recency bias can help keep them from making irrational investment decisions and manage their expectations during the next period of market volatility. In turn, that work will demonstrate the value of your services, potentially leading to greater client trust.

Omar Aguilar

Omar Aguilar, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer

About the author

Omar Aguilar

Omar Aguilar, Ph.D.

Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer