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The Benefits of a Financial Nudge

Reconciling the concepts of libertarian paternalism and self-determination.

Justin A. Reckers and Robert A. Simon, 06/16/2011

Richard Thaler is undeniably one of the godfathers of behavioral economics. Thaler is the professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and director of the Center for Decision Research. As an economist, he has collaborated with the founders of cognitive psychology and "prospect theory," Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Thaler's publication credits are lengthy, his research important, and his ideas brilliant. He grasped the tenets of cognitive psychology early on in his career as an economist and has used those tenets to build an original model for effecting positive change in the world of economic policy and financial decision-making. He calls it the "Nudge." Thaler penned a book along with Cass Sunstein by the same title in 2008.

In previous writings, Thaler and Sunstein detailed an economic strategy they call "libertarian paternalism." The basic idea, in my words, proposes that private and public institutions might do well to nudge people (citizens) toward certain decisions the institution believes to be in the best interest of its constituents. The nudges should help people make decisions that improve their lives economically, while supporting each individual's freedom of choice. The nudge represents paternalism and the freedom of choice represents libertarianism.

We wrote last month about the importance of self-determination in financial advisory practices and financial decision-making in general. This month we look, briefly, at whether Thaler and Sunstein's nudge may be a successful way to effect positive change in daily financial decision-making and whether it meets with our goals of supporting self-determination and informed consent.

In the abstract of Thaler and Sunstein's principal paper Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron, it states "Often people's preferences are unclear and ill-formed, and their choices will inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points. ... Equipped with an understanding of behavioral findings of bounded rationality and bounded self-control, libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people's choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice. It is also possible to show how a libertarian paternalist might select among the possible options and to assess how much choice to offer."

Cognitive psychology studies how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems. The discoveries made since its founding in the 1970s have shaped how psychologists and economists perceive the science behind cognitive processes in financial decisions. We agree with Thaler and Sunstein that people's preferences are often unclear or ill-informed when they are set in the midst of ambiguity and created by life experiences. We also agree that framing and other cognitive distortions will influence the decisions made to a greater extent in the midst of ambiguity and emotion. The part that deserves more attention, in our minds, is Thaler and Sunstein's belief that "libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people's choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice."

How is this done while supporting and maintaining true self-determination? We wrote in our last column that we believe self-determination to be the greatest motivation behind an advisor's decision to incorporate behavioral finance into practice. Self-determination at its simplest is the power or ability to make a decision for oneself without influence from outside forces. Libertarian paternalism attempts to maintain the freedom of choice yet advocates for advisors and policymakers to "steer" the decision-making processes of those who would be helped in the direction of decisions the advisor or policymaker believes to be welfare promoting.

Can we really support self-determination while exerting our own influence as advisors and policymakers upon others? Doesn't that fly in the face of the goal for self-determination if we believe that the absence of outside influence is necessary for true self-determination?

Thaler developed a great plan he calls Save More Tomorrow. This libertarian paternalism-inspired plan allows workers to sign up today to save more of their wages in the future. In this way workers are 1) encouraged to make the right choice and save more of their future earnings and 2) allowed to make their own choice and self-determine that they believe saving a greater percentage of their incomes over time is a prudent decision.

The difference between libertarian paternalism and true self-determination is slight but clear. In the instance of the Save More Tomorrow program, self-determination is encouraged, but the array of choices offered is predetermined by the advisor or policymaker. The only options are to Save More Tomorrow or not. Most people will realize the value of savings and choose this option, which the policymaker also believes to be in the individual's best interest. When they are asked to part with future dollars not yet in their possession instead of current dollars they may have already allocated elsewhere, mental accounting will kick in and tell them to make the choice the policymaker suggests would be best, and they will choose to Save More Tomorrow. In this way it encourages people to make the right choice without imposing it upon them. This and many of Thaler's other libertarian paternalism-inspired endeavors beg the question of where is the line between self-determination and choice architecture.

Each individual practitioner will ultimately make many choices over time as to how to encourage clients to choose the "best" avenue for their financial decision-making. If too much focus is given to the strategies, solutions, and implementation while ignoring the client needs, wants, and wishes, we risk the relevance of the advisory process and its ability to reflect the client's unique circumstances.

We believe the choice architecture of financial decision-making must be built with self-determination as its main motivation. We also believe people can and should be encouraged to make better decisions with their money. Businesses have been using the nudge for years seeking to drive a wedge between people and their self-control in order to persuade them to purchase something or to spend on credit. So, without discussing the political ramifications of such policy intervention, we totally support the nudges behind libertarian paternalism and encourage the use of choice architecture in facilitating economically rational and informed financial decisions for clients. It does not destroy self-determination; it simply redefines the process.

We will continue our Applied Behavioral Finance series next month with a look at common professional biases such as confirmatory bias, attribution error, and availability, which can come into play when an advisor chooses to be the architect of a client's financial decision-making. 

Citation: Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein 2003. "Libertarian Paternalism ."American Economic Review, 93(2): 175-179.

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