It could just be our algorithms, but over the past couple of years there’s been huge increase in the number of online share trading apps advertising across social platforms, YouTube and broadcast/streaming TV, promising quick and easy access to the share trading market.  

Historically, buying and selling shares through a stock broker and getting professional financial advice has been limited to high net worth individuals (with the cost of professional financial advice in Australia ranging from $2000 to $5000-plus per annum). But these apps promise an easy, low-barrier entry point and potential side hustle for people to start buying and selling shares from the comfort of their couch or even their bathroom.  

You don’t need any knowledge of the market and its statistics to start buying and selling at this entry level. As noted in The Ethics Centre’s latest podcast Life and Shares, nearly 5000 Australians opened an online account and started trading in the months after Covid-19 hit our shores, holding their shares for one day on average, with 80% losing money (although most would be classified as ‘toe dippers’ rather than traders). 

The issue is, many of these trading apps are gamified with incentives, like points accumulation and (relatively valueless) gifts or benefits the more trades you make. These companies charge a fee for every trade, so it’s in their interest for customers to make as many trades as possible. Research by the Ontario Securities Commission found that groups using gamified apps, “made around about 40% more trades than control groups.” 

This implicitly encourages day trading, where buyers play on the volatility of the market by buying and selling securities quickly, often in the same day, in the hope of turning a quick profit. 

“The general market wisdom is that time in the market generally beats timing the market,” says Angel Xiong, head of the finance department in the School of Economics at RMIT. 

Day trading flips this by trying to predict rapid price movements based off the news of the day, and this is where it starts to verge into gambling-adjacent behaviour.

Cameron Buchanan, of ASIC accredited online training centre, the International Day Trading Academy, says, “people often treat trading like they are gambling. And the main reason is because most gamblers don’t expect to lose. So emotionally, a lot of us are hardwired to not [want to] experience loss. We want certainty. And if we are coming into the trading markets, there’s a lot of uncertainty in it.” 

Even if you know your stats and have a plan for your buy and sell points, Cameron says, “I know from my own experience, you get so locked into that trade and the emotion is so strong. You don’t want to take that loss because of the hope that the market turns around and gives you that positive feeling.” 

Angel Xiong, Head of Finance in the School of Economics at RMIT, studies behavioural financial biases. “One of these biases is something we call attribution bias,” Xiong says, “which means people tend to attribute their success to strategy and skills, but when they lose money, they attribute it to, ‘Oh, it’s just bad luck’. So in terms of whether they [day traders] have strategy, it is really up to debate.” Consequently, Xiong believes, “stock market trading and gambling in casinos or online betting are very similar.” 

As Ravi Dutta Powell, Senior Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team, notes in episode 4, “the more that you gamify it, the more it starts to move into that gambling space and becomes less about the underlying financial products and more about engagement with the app and trying to get people to spend more money even though that may not necessarily be in their best financial interests… The real cost is the increased risk of losing the money you’ve invested because you’re making more trades.”  

Addiction specialists, like the clinical psychologist interviewed in episode 3, warn that day traders can develop trading habits that closely resemble gambling addiction. “Certain forms of trading are addictive in and of itself,” the psychologist says. “The more high volatility securities or platforms where you can be in debt to the platform. Those are more risky plays and those can become quite addictive. As somebody who works in gambling, share trading looks identical to that and actually responds to treatment for gambling.” 

“As somebody who works in gambling, share trading looks identical to that and actually responds to treatment for gambling.”

Symptoms of addictive behaviour include developing an obsession with trading, chasing winning streaks, trying to recoup losses, investing larger and larger amounts to chase the thrill, buying into the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and investing money in shares you haven’t properly researched.  

But even if you’re going for “time in the market,” researching your buys thoroughly and buying blue chip stocks, it can still go bad due to that aforementioned “volatility”. Look at the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the market, or the stock market crashes of 2002 and 2008, and it becomes clear that no stock is a “sure win”, especially when your emotions are pushing you to avoid a loss and hold on for the market to turn around.  

All you can accurately control, as Life and Shares host Cris Parker puts it in episode 4, is to ask yourself, “What are my values? How much am I prepared to lose?” – and brush up on your financial literacy before you start dropping bundles. 


Life and Shares unpicks the share market so you can make decisions you’ll be proud of. Listen now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.  

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