This story was updated on Dec. 26, 2018.
As if there wasn’t already an abundance of worrisome events in the news to stress you out, the money you have saved and invested for retirement has suddenly become a major source of anxiety as well.
After a series of steep declines, stocks are currently experiencing their worst December since the Great Depression, amid tension over the government shutdown and concern that the economy could turn sour next year. As things now stand, the market is on track for its first annual loss since the financial crisis in 2008 and is within a whisper of falling into bear territory (defined as a drop of 20% or more in prices) for this first time in a decade.
Still, the reality is, the biggest risk to your retirement savings isn’t the recent sharp drop in stock prices or the spate of bad economic and political news that’s rattled the markets. It’s you.
That’s because, even if you know you should stick to your long-term investment strategy, you’re working against powerful psychological urges that egg you on to do very opposite.
In fact, there’s a large body of research, known as behavioral economics, that seeks to explain what happens in your brain when the market moves up or down, and how you react accordingly.
Once you recognize, and understand, these impulses, it can be easier to commit to putting some guardrails in place so your head won’t pull your retirement plan off track. The goal isn’t to change the way you feel—but to help you respond to those feelings in the best possible way.
Here’s what you need to know.
The forces that drive your behavior
No one’s at their most rational in times of heavy stress. But when it comes to our money, we tend to react to stress in very specific ways that push us to ignore the historical realities of the market:
Losses feel worse than gains. A foundational study in the field of behavioral economics found that, on average, we feel the pain of a loss about twice as much as the pleasure we derive from a gain.
A follow-up study found the pain of a loss is even more acute for retirees, registering five times more painful than the pleasure of a gain.
This so-called “loss aversion” is part of the reason why, when the market is moving down, you might feel the urge to own more “safe” investments, rather than stay committed to owning volatile stocks.
That can cause you to sell investments that are smart for your long-term goals, to calm your near-term nerves.
Now always feels like the new normal. Historically, there’s plenty of proof that just because the market went up or down one day, doesn’t mean it will do the same the next.
But our brains are trained to overweight the present, a phenomenon known as “recency bias.” So when our most recent experience is reading headlines that October was the worst month for stocks since the financial crisis, the tendency is to start worrying that the bad times are here to stay, and sell.
Similarly, when the market’s going up, you’re likely to think it’s a good time to buy. Remember how appealing Internet stocks looked during the dot-com mania of the late ’90’s? That was your brain on recency bias.
Peer pressure is a grown-up problem, too. Just as teenagers act in tandem with their friends, so do adults.
Numerous studies have shown that we make decisions based on what others are doing, regardless of whether they make sense for our personal situation.
In behavioral psychology-speak, that’s called the “herding instinct,” and it can be the result of listening to colleagues chat about their 401(k) moves by the water cooler, or being swayed by the drone of market pundits invading your television, smartphone or computer screen.
How to get around your own head
Understanding the emotions behind your impulses can help you fight back against the temptation to buy or sell. The following strategies can help as well:
Tap into your investing experience. Just like turbulence during air travel, market volatility is unpleasant, unnerving…and mostly unremarkable.
Anyone who’s been saving in a 401(k) since the 1980s has lived through four bear markets where stocks fell more than 30% on average. Still, U.S. stocks have posted an annualized return of 10% over the past 30 years.
Focus on your future self. It was probably easier to brush aside concerns about the state of your savings when you knew you had decades to go before retirement.
Yet even after 60, your investing plan still needs to stay focused on the long-term. Half of today’s 65-year old women will be alive at 88 and half of 65-year old men will be alive past age 85.
So remind yourself that you’re in it for the long haul by making an effort to connect to your future self. Look at photos of elderly relatives, or use the AgingBooth App (Apple or Android) to gin up your own aged photo.
And consider writing a letter to yourself—sign and date it to give it extra emphasis—where you pre-commit to a course of action in the event you are faced with dangerous temptation.
Any time you sense you may be falling into a bit of loss aversion or recency bias, pull out this letter and review.
Get support. Talking to a financial advisor during times of market turmoil can be smart for two reasons. One, leaning on a neutral person can be one of the best ways to keep your emotions from winning out. The advisor’s job is to check you feelings against the long-term investment plan you created in a moment of calm.
Plus, when the markets are rough, you want to be double sure that the plan you hatched a while ago makes sense, especially as you near, or are in, retirement.
If you want someone to manage your investments on a daily basis, you’ll need to pay an annual fee, typically about 1% of your holdings. But if you just want an occasional consultation, the Garrett Planning Network has a searchable database of planners that work on an hourly or flat-fee project basis.
Or you can consider working with a robo-advisory firm, such as Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, that mixes automatic management of your investments with some access to human advisors. Robo fees typically run from 0.15% to .30%, depending on the size of your account.
Alternatively, if you want a less formal sounding board, ask a trusted friend or relative to be an accountability buddy.
“Having someone who knows your plan and that you have to run things by, can help you stay committed,” says Wendy De La Rosa, a co-founder and head of research at the Common Cents Lab, a research arm of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. Plus, you’ll get an invaluable check on the biases that can get in the way of your long-term success.