Does human nature put your retirement at risk?

There’s a reason why so many people are anxious about their retirement -- it’s called human nature. Let’s see how we might be helped by changes in the way researchers and retirement analysts are looking at how we make decisions. Instead of making assumptions about how people behave that don’t hold up in the real world, this field, which goes by the name of behavioral finance or behavioral economics, examines the way real people make economic and financial planning decisions.

Until recently, "rational choice" theory has served as the dominant model of decision-making in economics. This theory assumes that people make decisions by generating a complete list of possible options, methodically evaluating the costs and benefits of each option, then choosing the option that maximizes their self-interest. Additionally, this theory assumes that people have access to all the information needed to make this calculation.

 But this theory doesn't hold up when it comes to how most people really plan for retirement. The problem is summed up well by prominent behavioral scientist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, who once said, “For many people, being asked to solve their own retirement savings problems is like being asked to build their own cars.”

Behavioral finance research has shown that most people aren't truly rational decision-makers. Instead, their rationality is limited by a number of psychological factors. Here are some examples of these limits as they apply to retirement planning:

  • Most people have trouble generating a complete set of planning options to consider because they simply don’t have the time and money to do so. As a result, they generally decide among a limited set of alternatives.
  • Even if someone can generate a complete list of retirement solutions, they likely can't predict how these plans might fare under different economic scenarios. Even economists and other experts have trouble correctly predicting economic markets, so regular folks are sure to have trouble as well.
  • People tend to focus on just a few factors when making retirement planning decisions, ignoring other factors that might be more important. A good example is that many individuals and financial planners spend most of their time actively managing their investments, when other decisions may be more important, such as those having to do with asset allocation, reducing investment costs, deciding how much to save, Social Security claiming strategies, and generating retirement income from savings.
  • Many people fare poorly when it comes to anticipating their emotional reactions to various events. Some people may overestimate how happy they’ll be if they experience positive investment returns and assume too much stock market risk, overlooking the damage that might occur if the stock market crashes. On the other hand, others may underestimate their ability to bounce back from a stock market downturn and be too conservative with their investments.
  • Even if you were able to overcome all the above factors to develop effective retirement planning strategies, you might not have the necessary willpower to carry out your plans. Research suggests that willpower is actually a finite resource: In one study, participants who were asked to resist eating chocolate gave up more quickly on a subsequent puzzle task compared with participants who didn't have to resist the chocolate. This indicates that people don't always possess the willpower to carry out decisions as rational choice theory would expect.
  • Finally, rational choice theory assumes that people act primarily in their own interest. But in laboratory settings and in the real world, people are consistently altruistic and collaborative. For example, many people will give money to help close family members even if doing so jeopardizes their financial security.

  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    For more than 35 years, consulting actuary Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs. Now he's a Research Scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct, and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He also delivers retirement planning workshops and has authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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