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Decision Science News

June 7, 2010

Professor Eric Johnson Featured in The New York Times

Professor Eric Johnson's ideas for improving retirement income are featured in this New York Times article.

Topics: Marketing


Employees have increasingly been forced over the last few decades to take responsibility for ensuring they have enough savings to last through retirement. But many of them are making inadequate saving decisions and finding themselves facing financial difficulty in retirement.

As a result, the Department of Labor and the Department of the Treasury are reviewing retirement plan rules to determine if the retirement security of participants could be enhanced with arrangements aimed at providing a lifetime stream of income after retirement. Earlier this year, the agencies put out a request for comments on the topic from the retirement plan industry and the general public.

In drafting its response, a financial services provider, Allianz Global Investors, with the help of Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral finance professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, reached out to academics in the behavioral science field and asked each one for a “key insight” that they believed would be most helpful in creating policies and solutions to  the issue. In its response, released earlier this week, Allianz presented the insights of the 10 academics and compiled their findings into a checklist that could be used by policy makers.

“These insights can add a human dimension to the design of a retirement system, helping to prevent ‘behavioral blind spots’ that could dramatically compromise it,” Mr. Benartzi wrote in the report. “At a time when individuals are asked to assume more responsibility for their retirement savings, we believe the human element is a critical determinative factor.”

So what are some of the main ideas? Here’s a look at a few we found interesting. Check out the response and let us know in the comments below which idea you find most interesting and why.

Seeing Your Future Self: Daniel G. Goldstein, an assistant professor of marketing at London Business School and a research scientist at Yahoo Research, is exploring how new virtual reality technologies can be used to create future images of a person and how seeing those images could influence a person’s financial decisions. According to the Allianz response, the preliminary findings of Professor Goldstein and his fellow researchers suggest that seeing a digital future representation of one’s self leads to allocating more money toward retirement. The researchers have started testing a Web-based tool where the facial expressions of future age-morphed selves change based on a selected savings rate. How could this research be incorporated into solutions to address retirement savings problems? Here’s how it’s presented in the checklist for policy makers: Are the implications of today’s financial decisions vividly presented so employees see how their lives will be affected?

Addressing Retirees’ Hypersensitivity to Loss: Researchers have shown that investors experience the pain of financial loss more than the pleasure of financial gain. Eric Johnson, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, has found that for retirees, the stronger reaction to loss is even more acute. But at the same time, he has found that retirees respond less favorably to financial products with more protection and guarantees. The professor’s explanation for this apparent contradiction is that retirees actually view giving up control of their money — and giving up the ability to withdraw money when they want it — as another type of loss. This means that products with guarantees and protection could be positioned as a way to gain control of finance and spending and policy makers should consider if a proposed solution is appropriate for retirees who are hypersensitive to losses.

Tangible Mental Accounts: Researchers have also shown that people tend to divide their money into separate mental accounts for various purposes (think travel or dining out) and that earmarking savings to specific goals (college savings, for instance) tends to increase saving rates. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, has proposed applying these concepts to retirement. The idea would be that retirees have separate accounts for various purposes and use different investment strategies with different levels of risk for each. For policy makers, the idea would be to ask whether the retirement income strategy offers “multiple accounts to facilitate different goals, such as paying the rent or spending money on vacations.”


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