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When a Nudge Isn't Enough: Defaults and Saving Among Low-Income Tax Filers

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  • Erin Todd Bronchetti
  • Thomas S. Dee
  • David B. Huffman
  • Ellen Magenheim

Abstract

Recent evidence suggests that the default options implicit in economic choices (e.g., 401(k) savings by white-collar workers) have extraordinarily large effects on decision-making. This study presents a field experiment that evaluates the effect of defaults on savings among a highly policy-relevant population: low-income tax filers. In the control condition, tax filers could choose (i.e., opt in) to receive some of their federal tax refund in the form of U.S. Savings Bonds. In the treatment condition, a fraction of the tax refund was automatically directed to U.S. Savings Bonds unless tax filers actively chose another allocation. We find that the opt-out default had no impact on savings behavior. Furthermore, our treatment estimate is sufficiently precise to reject effects as small as one-fifth of the participation effects found in the 401(k) literature. Ancillary evidence suggests that this "nudge" was ineffective in part because the low-income tax filers in our study had targeted plans to spend their refunds. These results suggest that choice architecture based on defaults may be less effective in certain policy-relevant settings, particularly where intentions are strong.

Suggested Citation

  • Erin Todd Bronchetti & Thomas S. Dee & David B. Huffman & Ellen Magenheim, 2011. "When a Nudge Isn't Enough: Defaults and Saving Among Low-Income Tax Filers," NBER Working Papers 16887, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16887
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    Cited by:

    1. Berber Kramer, 2016. "When expectations become aspirations: reference-dependent preferences and liquidity constraints," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 61(4), pages 685-721, April.
    2. Cox, James C. & Sadiraj, Vjollca & Schnier, Kurt E. & Sweeney, John F., 2016. "Higher quality and lower cost from improving hospital discharge decision making," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 131(PB), pages 1-16.
    3. Carol Osler & Thang Nguyen & Tanseli Savaser, 2011. "Asymmetric Information and the Foreign-Exchange Trades of Global Custody Banks," Department of Economics Working Papers 2011-09, Department of Economics, Williams College.
    4. B. Douglas Bernheim & Andrey Fradkin & Igor Popov, 2015. "The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 105(9), pages 2798-2837, September.
    5. Michalek, Gabriela & Meran, Georg & Schwarze, Reimund & Yildiz, Özgür, 2016. "Nudging as a new "soft" policy tool: An assessment of the definitional scope of nudges, practical implementation possibilities and their effectiveness," Economics Discussion Papers 2016-18, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW).
    6. Gabriela Michalek & Georg Meran & Reimund Schwarze & Özgür Yildiz, 2015. "Nudging as a new 'soft' tool in environmental policy. An analysis based on insights from cognitive and social psychology," Discussion Paper Series RECAP15 21, RECAP15, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C93 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Field Experiments
    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • D1 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior

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