Could getting people to save more money be as easy as changing around the office furniture? Based on Emily Garbinsky's research, the answer is yes.
Her ongoing studies show that people who feel powerful save more money and that fostering those feelings of power, even in small ways, can make a big difference.
Garbinsky, a PhD candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says something as simple as having a person sit in a chair that is higher than someone else's can motivate them to put more money into savings than they would otherwise.
"We think that the finding of making people feel powerful in the moment right before they make a savings decision would be particularly helpful for lower-income individuals," Garbinsky says.
In one of a series of experiments she conducted with other researchers, 76 Stanford students were offered $10 to come to a lab to provide feedback on how it operated. Each student was escorted to a room and asked at random to sit either in the tall chair or on the low ottoman that were there. An interviewer, who took whichever seat was unoccupied, asked some questions, then handed them a note about a new payment policy that gave them the option of taking the cash or putting all or some of it in a high-interest savings account. A separate questionnaire asked the students about how powerful they felt during the interview.
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Those who sat in the chair reported greater feelings of power and opted to save a larger share of the $10 than those who sat on the ottoman. Those feeling powerful also were more likely to use the savings account (72%) than those feeling powerless (51%).
Garbinsky says she got interested in motivating people to make better financial decisions because her father is a financial adviser and she used to work for him when she was in high school and college. "I would really see firsthand how demotivated people are when it comes to saving and managing their finances more generally."
Two studies she has in the works now continue to explore the relationship between feelings of power and savings behavior.
She is working with one of the biggest banks in the country in an experiment with the wording of email messages sent out to customers. "I want to see if incorporating power-related messages into the wording of their emails will make people more likely to put their money into an IRA, for example," she says.
Another study running in a financial adviser's office uses videos to try to prompt powerful feelings in those who want to save for retirement. The results so far are promising.
"The clients that come in and watch the power-related video schedule their follow-up appointments sooner, they're more likely to keep their follow-up appointment and they're more likely to stick to their retirement savings plan than people who watch the more neutral video," Garbinsky says. "Just this idea that really subtle changes in how people feel at the moment they're making a financial decision I think is really important."
So if you want to help people save money, look for ways to make them feel powerful.
Bonnie McGeer is the Executive Editor of American Banker Magazine.