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Who Chooses Defined Contribution Plans?


  • Jeffrey R. Brown
  • Scott J. Weisbenner


This paper provides new evidence on what types of individuals are most likely to choose a defined contribution (DC) plan over a defined benefit (DB) plan. Making use of administrative data from the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) of Illinois, we study the decisions of nearly 50,000 new employees who make a one-time, irrevocable choice between a traditional DB plan, a portable DB plan, and an entirely self-managed DC plan. Because the SURS-covered earnings of these employees are not covered under the Social Security system, their choices provides insight into the DB vs. DC preferences of individuals with regard to a primary source of their retirement income. We find that a majority of participants fail to make an active decision and are thus defaulted into the traditional DB plan after 6 months. We also find that those individuals who are most likely to be financially sophisticated are most likely to choose the self-managed DC plan, despite the fact that, given plan parameters, the DC plan is inferior to the portable DB plan under reasonable assumptions about future financial market returns. We discuss both rational and behavioral reasons that might explain this finding.

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey R. Brown & Scott J. Weisbenner, 2007. "Who Chooses Defined Contribution Plans?," NBER Working Papers 12842, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12842
    Note: AG

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2004. "For Better or for Worse: Default Effects and 401(k) Savings Behavior," NBER Chapters,in: Perspectives on the Economics of Aging, pages 81-126 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Esther Duflo & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "The Role of Information and Social Interactions in Retirement Plan Decisions: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 118(3), pages 815-842.
    3. Robert Shiller, 2005. "The Life-Cycle Personal Accounts Proposal for Social Security: An Evaluation," Yale School of Management Working Papers amz2535, Yale School of Management.
    4. Zvi Bodie & Alan J. Marcus & Robert C. Merton, 1988. "Defined Benefit versus Defined Contribution Pension Plans: What are the Real Trade-offs?," NBER Chapters,in: Pensions in the U.S. Economy, pages 139-162 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Duflo, Esther & Saez, Emmanuel, 2002. "Participation and investment decisions in a retirement plan: the influence of colleagues' choices," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 85(1), pages 121-148, July.
    6. Papke, Leslie E., 2004. "Pension Plan Choice in the Public Sector: The Case of Michigan State Employees," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 57(2), pages 329-339, June.
    7. Brigitte C. Madrian & Dennis F. Shea, 2001. "The Power of Suggestion: Inertia in 401(k) Participation and Savings Behavior," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(4), pages 1149-1187.
    8. Robert L. Clark & Linda S. Ghent & Ann A. McDermed, 2006. "Pension Plan Choice among University Faculty," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 72(3), pages 560-577, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. John Chalmers & Jonathan Reuter, 2012. "Is Conflicted Investment Advice Better than No Advice?," NBER Working Papers 18158, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Beshears, John & Choi, James J. & Laibson, David & Madrian, Brigitte C., 2011. "Behavioral economics perspectives on public sector pension plans," Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, Cambridge University Press, vol. 10(02), pages 315-336, April.
    3. Brown, Jeffrey R. & Farrell, Anne M. & Weisbenner, Scott J., 2016. "Decision-making approaches and the propensity to default: Evidence and implications," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 121(3), pages 477-495.
    4. Gopi Shah Goda & Colleen Flaherty Manchester, 2013. "Incorporating Employee Heterogeneity into Default Rules for Retirement Plan Selection," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 48(1), pages 198-235.
    5. Ximena Quintanilla, 2011. "Did Chileans Maximize Pensions when Choosing between PAYG and DC?," Working Papers 46, Superintendencia de Pensiones, revised Sep 2011.
    6. Brown, Jeffrey R. & Weisbenner, Scott J., 2014. "Why do individuals choose defined contribution plans? Evidence from participants in a large public plan," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 116(C), pages 35-46.
    7. Shlomo Benartzi & Richard Thaler, 2007. "Heuristics and Biases in Retirement Savings Behavior," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(3), pages 81-104, Summer.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D14 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Saving; Personal Finance
    • G11 - Financial Economics - - General Financial Markets - - - Portfolio Choice; Investment Decisions

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