Investing

How not to get overwhelmed by 'choice overload' when investing, according to an expert

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If considering your investment options feels overwhelming, you might be falling into a common mental trap.

"One of the biggest challenges facing investors, now more than ever, is choice overload," says Jeff Kreisler, editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com and coauthor of "Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter." This is an example of a cognitive bias, or something that causes us to unconsciously make poor decisions, he explains.

"When we have so many choices and so much information, it can just become overwhelming and almost crippling," Kreisler says. "No matter what we decide to do, we feel like we've made the wrong decision because we see so many other options. It can really be a detriment."

A classic study on choice overload analyzed supermarket shoppers trying to pick a jar of jam and noted that consumers were 10 times as likely to buy when offered a choice of six varieties as they were when offered a choice of 24.

It's often better to sort of curate your choices or have your choices curated for you and narrowed down to a few than try to think of all the possibilities out there, because that's when we get overwhelmed.
Jeff Kreisler
editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com

Your choice of investment assets is much broader. On U.S. exchanges alone, investors can select from more than 4,000 publicly traded stocks, 2,000-plus exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and more than 9,000 mutual funds. In addition to the sheer number of options, there's also a lot of information about these investments from a variety of sources.

How to overcome choice overload

So how can you narrow the thousands of investment options when you're starting out? Setting a few parameters can eliminate a lot of options in one fell swoop—look for only low-fee investments, for example, or ones that track a particular index.

"It's often better to sort of curate your choices or have your choices curated for you and narrowed down to a few than try to think of all the possibilities out there, because that's when we get overwhelmed," Kreisler says.

With a more narrow set of options, you can use some other techniques to make a decision—like playing devil's advocate. "Think about what's the worst thing that could happen," and see if the answer to that provides new information to counteract what's preventing you from making a decision, Kreisler says.

VIDEO5:0505:05
How cognitive bias affects your investments

Video by Courtney Stith

Using a buddy system — explaining your decisions to a spouse, partner, or friend — can also help you to identify when you make decisions in an emotional state versus a rational one, he adds.

Kreisler recently sat down with Grow to explain some of the common cognitive biases affecting investors. Check out the video above for additional examples, as well as tips for how to counteract these biases.

Here are some other Grow resources that can help: