Research

Journal to Spotlight Financial Behavior

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The Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) will devote a special issue to interdisciplinary research on the hot topic of financial decision–making and behavior.

The issue is a smorgasbord of 15 articles on behavioral, marketing, economic, and psychological research on various financial activities, from borrowing money to establishing trust in financial transactions.

The November issue’s guest editor-in-chief, John G. Lynch, a psychologist who “wandered into marketing and consumer decision-making,” said the interdisciplinary approach advances everyone’s understanding of complex financial decisions.

“A given field understands a part of the answer. But we’re missing the larger whole,” he said. The special issue “would bring people together to read each other’s work and have an effect of causing more cross-fertilization.”

Squared Away plans to cover some JMR articles in a series of blog posts in coming weeks. Here’s a preview: …Learn More

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Research

401(k) Fund Choices: Less is More

New research suggests that the more mutual funds your 401(k) offers, the more likely you are to take the easy way out to escape the mental gridlock.

The typical 401(k) has seven mutual fund investment options, but some have as many as 21 funds. We may think we like choices, but behavioral research has shown that people simply can’t handle so many options – that’s why some employers have turned to auto enrollment in their 401(k)s or picking investments for workers who can’t or won’t make the decision.

A new study building on prior research finds that the more investment options an employee has the more likely he or she is to simply divide the money evenly among those options. This can potentially reduce the diversification in employees’ retirement portfolios, with long-term consequences.

“We find that considering a larger number of funds to invest in may be overwhelming for many investors,” said the research, by Gergana Nenkov and colleagues at Boston College, as well as Rutgers University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas, Austin. Splitting the money evenly is how we cope.

“We just don’t have enough capacity to sift through the options that are out there,” Nenkov explained in an interview. Employees aren’t financial experts, and asking them to make these decisions is often “too much,” she said, and may even be “making us unhappy.”

The focus is on 401(k) choices in this study, recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research, But the argument may apply to the proliferation of all kinds of complex financial products, including credit cards charging different rates for balance transfers, purchases and cash advances, as well as debit cards with hidden fees and mortgages with complicated terms.

Multiple products act to prevent consumers from comparison shopping. But the demise of the defined benefit plan and the sudden responsibility thrown on employees to manage tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in their personal investment portfolios is clearly more than many of us can handle. Don’t feel bad either – Nenkov, who has a PhD in marketing, admits to feeling overwhelmed by the choices. (As does this blog writer.) …Learn More

A bill with a minimum payment of $20.00, and the corner of a $20 bill.

Research

Card Minimums Cause Puzzling Behavior

What is it about the minimum payment on credit card statements that makes people act so crazy?

Two years ago, Neil Stewart, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, confirmed his own and some behavioral economists’ suspicions: when the minimum payment line was entirely deleted from statements, cardholders paid 70 percent more.

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, underscoring how important this initial finding was. Credit-card companies set their minimum payments extremely low, significantly increasing customers’ total payouts over the long term – paying the minimum causes interest costs to accumulate faster.

Stewart and his colleagues have now advanced his prior research by testing how card-carrying Americans and British would react to different levels of minimum payments. The result this time: the higher the minimum, the less people paid.

“We’re not entirely sure what’s going on in people’s heads,” said co-author Linda Salisbury, a professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. The key, however, is a well-known psychological concept called “anchoring,” she said. …Learn More

A pile of different colored credit cards.

Research

People Make Mistakes When Paying Cards

Myth: I should pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first to get out of debt quickly.
Truth: You should pay off the smallest debt first to create the greatest momentum in your debt snowball.

— DaveRamsey.com

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely might agree with Dave Ramsey’s second statement: Ariely and fellow researchers for the first time have established that people do, indeed, pay off their small card balances first, because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment.

“We have a desire to close things, to feel we’re making progress,” Ariely said in a recent interview. As each card is knocked off the list, “it’s something you can count.” The strategy also dovetails with people’s natural inclination to break down overwhelming tasks into sub-goals to make the task feel more manageable.

But the mathematical truth remains that holders of multiple cards get out of debt faster and cheaper if they first pay down the cards with the highest interest rates. In other words, it’s not in a card holder’s financial best interest to pay off the small balances first, even if it does make them feel better.

The researchers’ first experiment confirmed this behavioral tendency by testing 162 undergraduates…Learn More

Three cartoon piggy banks.

Behavior

One Savings Goal Better Than Many

Saving money. No financial behavior is more important in this era of DIY retirement planning. And yet few things are more difficult for more people.

To prod low-income people to save a little, foundations and the government design clever financial products or incentives – some work, some don’t. Academic researchers divine psychological tricks or behavioral mechanisms that might spur saving. Automatic enrollment in employer-supported 401(k)s is one such success story.

A different solution to the savings conundrum comes from two marketing professors at the University of Toronto. Experimenting on subjects around the world – residents of a small town in India, Canadian college students, parents in Hong Kong – they found that individuals are more successful savers if they identify and work toward a single goal. Setting multiple, competing goals – college, retirement, summer vacation, a new kitchen, and the Christmas fund – was less effective and even counterproductive.

“When people have multiple goals, they cannot decide which one is more important,” said author Min Zhao, whose paper with Dilip Soman is forthcoming in December’s Journal of Marketing Research. “They say, ‘I cannot decide. Maybe I’ll just do this later, and I might not do anything.’ ” …Learn More

A giant snowball rolling down a snow covered hill.

Behavior

Spenders Yield to ‘What the Hell Effect’

We all know the feeling. While mentally savoring the appetizers on the menu, our resolve to diet slips away. That same feeling has already hit by the time we slap our credit card down on the counter at Macy’s.

It’s so common that psychologists have named it the “what the hell effect.” Once poised at the edge, we might as well leap, right? But after the leap, people who usually try to maintain a certain level of self-control in their everyday lives feel awful.

Three marketing professors have now teased out the conditions that trigger this during the act of charging something on a credit card. They have found that people spend more money if they already have a balance on their credit card. But, oddly, a high-dollar credit limit on the card can mitigate that effect and help to restrain the cardholder’s spending.

Their findings are counterintuitive and a bit difficult to grasp. Here’s how Keith Wilcox, a marketing professor at Babson College in Boston, explained them in a recent interview with Squared Away: … Learn More

Computer generated projections of a man as he ages.

Research

How to Save: Imagine You’re Older

Economists’ explanation for why people don’t save for retirement is that they “discount” the future, placing a higher value on today’s pleasures. Educators argue that people don’t have the information they need to save.

Psychologists have a new theory: people can’t relate to their older, retired selves.

To test this theory, Hal Ersner-Hershfield and collaborators at Stanford University devised a way to help their research subjects – college students – identify with those nebulous figures out in the future, their older selves. When they did, the subjects were more likely to save money.

The national media have already covered this research. But it’s worth sharing as The Journal of Marketing Research plans to feature it in a special November issue on financial decision-making. The experiment demonstrates the contribution by psychologists to our understanding of how we handle money. …Learn More

An arrow curving upwards (left to right) over the top of increasingly tall graph bars.

Research

The Power of Compound Interest

Every entrant to the workforce should be subjected to the same questions posed to California undergraduates in a new experiment about how well people understand compound interest.

Better to show the math than to explain it. Franny and Zooey just started working. Franny immediately begins depositing $100 per month – $1,200 every year – into her new retirement account, which pays 10 percent interest annually. Zooey doesn’t start saving for 20 years, but he puts in $300 every month — $3,600 annually — and also earns 10 percent interest.

In 40 years, Franny retires with $584,222 in her account – more than double Zooey’s $226,809.

Asked to calculate these future savings on their own, 90 percent of the undergraduates had vastly underestimated the totals in the experiment by Craig McKenzie at University of California, San Diego and Michael Liersch at New York University. Yet, this mathematical calculation is central to the financial well-being of most Americans. In 2009, more than half of all households were at risk of not having sufficient assets to retire, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, which hosts this blog. …Learn More