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
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