People Save More for Retirement When They Feel Morally Responsible

The majority of Americans will not have enough money in retirement to maintain their current standard of living. “One provocative explanation for this problem involves the notion, advanced by theorists in philosophy and economics, that a person at two different points in time is not really the same person,” said Christopher J. Bryan of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. “Moreover, the tendency to think about the future self as another is associated with a reluctance to make short-term sacrifices to ensure longer-term well-being, suggesting that this way of thinking may be a significant barrier to saving for retirement.” Bryan and his colleagues designed an intervention that would help motivate individuals to save more for retirement by tapping into their benevolent tendencies. Bryan said, “We designed a message to appeal to people’s sense of social responsibility to a future self who is heavily dependent on them—a sense of moral responsibility closely akin to that felt toward other people, such as family members, friends, and others whose welfare is of concern.”

Bryan evaluated the retirement savings rates of 193 Stanford University staff members after they were exposed to the intervention of a traditional control stimulus or the pro-social intervention. He found that the staff members who read the pro-social prompt increased their savings by almost one percent. “People who feel a close ‘social’ connection to their future selves are more effectively motivated to save by messages appealing to their sense of social responsibility to that future self than by messages appealing to their sense of rational self-interest,” Bryan said, adding that although the increase was small, over a lifetime it can add up to big savings. He said, “For example, a 30-year-old man earning the national median salary of $45,485/year who increased his saving rate from 5% to 5.85% could expect to have an additional $68,797 in savings when he retired at age 65 years—approximately 1.5 years’ worth of additional income replacement.” He added, “In conclusion, these results demonstrate that by understanding and taking account of the complicated relationship people have with their future selves, it is possible to produce effective interventions to modify behavior in ways that improve people’s lives and help meet pressing policy challenges.”

Bryan, C. J., & Hershfield, H. E. (2011, November 21). You Owe It to Yourself: Boosting Retirement Saving With a Responsibility-Based Appeal. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026173

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Generosa


    December 1st, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Guess I have never given much thought that I have a responsibility to myself in the future to save for a rainy day and to pay down my debt starting now. I know that I live too much for the moment, but this really got me to thinking about the reality of my future if I continue to live that way, and honestly I did not like what I saw. I do not want to be dependent on my kids or the US government to take care of me when I get older when I know that there are small changes that I can make today to get me ready for tomorrow. Thanks for sharing this very thought provoking story. I hope that it starts to have the same impact on others that it has had on me.

  • eric


    December 1st, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    a very good thug if u ask me-because most people are not only spending all that they earn but are constantly under debt and it will only lead to them having. I money at returement,putting the support services under stress and thereby eating up everybody’s dollar.

    This could really turn into a major problem and programs such as these which encourage people to save should be given support from the government.

  • Dale Sammy

    Dale Sammy

    December 2nd, 2011 at 7:59 AM

    This is true-moral responsibility and actually thinking about how you are going to manage things after retirement are the driving forces for people to save more and more.I have sen this happening with me and a lot of my co-workers,we’re all in our late 40s so there is more of such a thing in us compared to younger people.

  • Jackie Katz

    Jackie Katz

    December 2nd, 2011 at 7:52 PM

    Then most people must feel very little social responsibility for fellow man ’cause I see NO one saving money anymore, it is all about spending it as soon as it hits their hot little hands.

  • Sailor


    December 3rd, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    Personally holding out hope that my present self wins the lottery and can then take care of my future self in style ;)

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