The Limitations of Defaults

John Beshears, James Choi, David Laibson, Brigitte Madrian

NBER Retirement Research Center Paper No. NB 10-02
Issued in September 2010

Prior research has demonstrated that defaults have a powerful influence on economic outcomes in a wide range of settings because individuals often passively accept default options. This paper examines the degree to which defaults become less powerful as they become more extreme. We study a firm with a defined contribution retirement savings plan in which employees are automatically enrolled at a 12% contribution rate, a rate that is considerably higher than those studied in previous work. In addition, the default contribution rate is suboptimal for all employees because the firm only matches employee contributions between 12% and 18% of pay. Approximately one-quarter of employees at this firm remain at the default contribution rate after twelve months of tenure, while the comparable fraction for firms with more modest defaults is more than 60%. We also find that employees who remain at the default contribution rate after twelve months of tenure have lower incomes than would be predicted by the incomes of employees who actively choose neighboring contribution rates. This evidence suggests that defaults are more influential for low-income employees than for high-income employees because low-income individuals generally face higher barriers to active decision-making.

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