Owing it to Yourself

Oct 24, 2011 No Comments by

SCL Fellow: Christopher Bryan
Mentor: Gregory M. Walton, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Traditional retirement savings appeals ask people to plan for their own future, but Bryan had a different idea.

Traditional retirement savings appeals ask people to plan for their own future, but Bryan had a different idea.

By most estimates, the majority of Americans are not saving enough for retirement, even though they understand the consequences. A major factor in this, according to Center on Longevity Fellow Christopher Bryan, is that “People tend to see their future selves as a different person—and why would I want to give my money to that guy?”

Traditional retirement savings appeals ask people to plan for their own future, but Bryan had a different idea. He reasoned that if people tend to see themselves as different people in the future, the best approach might be to appeal to their sense of responsibility to take care of that future self. This is akin to the sense of responsibility that people feel when they care for loved ones.

In a field experiment with 193 Stanford staff members, Bryan split the participants into two groups. The first received a traditional appeal to save more for their own future well-being. The second group was asked to consider the future self as a person who was totally dependent on the subject’s decision to save now. Using actual (anonymized) data from the Stanford 401K program, those who experienced the second approach increased their retirement savings contributions more that the first group.

From these results and others, Bryan has concluded that people will save more to protect that future person than they would for themselves, but with a caveat. Since people generally only feel responsible for people they’re close to, this approach works best when people feel “socially” close to the future self, as one might feel toward a family member.

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