The Miracle of Compound Interest: Does Our Intuition Fail?

CentER Discussion Paper Series No. 2010-137

45 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2011

Date Written: December 10, 2010


When it comes to estimating the benefits of long-term savings, many people rely on their intuition. Focusing on the domain of retirement savings, we use a randomized experiment to explore people’s intuition about how money accumulates over time. We ask half of our sample to estimate future consumption given savings (the forward perspective). The other half of the sample is asked to estimate savings given future consumption (the backward perspective). From an economic point of view, both subsamples are asked identical questions. However, we discover a large “direction bias”: the perceived benefits of long-term savings are substantially higher when individuals adopt a backward perspective. Our findings have important implications for economic modeling, in general, and for structuring advice and financial literacy programs, in particular.

Keywords: Behavioral economics, financial intuition, financial literacy, compound interest, retirement saving

JEL Classification: D91, H55

Suggested Citation

Binswanger, Johannes and Carman, Katherine Grace, The Miracle of Compound Interest: Does Our Intuition Fail? (December 10, 2010). CentER Discussion Paper Series No. 2010-137. Available at SSRN: or

Johannes Binswanger (Contact Author)

University of St. Gallen ( email )

Dufourstrasse 50
St.Gallen, CH-9000

Katherine Grace Carman

RAND Corporation ( email )

1776 Main Street
P.O. Box 2138
Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138
United States

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