Save(d) by Design

72 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2018 Last revised: 11 Sep 2021

See all articles by Saurabh Bhargava

Saurabh Bhargava

Carnegie Mellon University

Lynn Conell-Price

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Richard Mason

City University London

Shlomo Benartzi

University of California at Los Angeles

Date Written: September 1, 2021


We begin by presenting novel administrative evidence from 840 401(k) plans with automatic enrollment (AE) indicating that the risk of retirement insecurity extends to a significant share of actual enrollees. Hypothesizing that this risk is materially affected by the initial decision to enroll at the default rate or to personalize enrollment at a higher rate, we investigate the sensitivity of initial enrollment to non-economic features of digital design that increasingly shape plan engagement. Specifically, we describe three large-scale field experiments, administered across 500 AE plans, that vary the psychological design (i.e., color, layout, phrasing, informational salience) of the digital interface from which employees decide to confirm, personalize, or decline enrollment. The field studies, supplemented by hypothetical choice experiments and a survey of hundreds of plan administrators, yield four findings. First, we show that modest changes to the psychological design of the interface result in sizable increases in personalized enrollment, full match take-up, and average contributions—equivalent to those predicted from a 68 to 74 percent increase in the modal match. Second, we show that marginal personalized enrollees appear to increase their initial contributions substantially and to an extent equivalent to inframarginal counterparts, implying potentially significant welfare gains due to design. Third, lab evidence indicates that design does not affect enrollment through standard economic channels of preferences/beliefs or often-cited behavioral frictions (inattention, confusion, distrust) and suggests instead that enrollment may emerge from a non-deliberative process in which design shifts affective appraisals. Finally, an industry survey shows that most plan administrators underestimate the potency of design and cannot identify optimal design elements. The findings raise new concerns about the retirement preparedness of 401(k) enrollees, highlight the potentially profound, and largely unrecognized, influence of digital design on financial decisions such as savings, and challenge basic economic assumptions underlying prevailing approaches to consumer protection and welfare analyses.

JEL Classification: D2, D10, D14, D18, D91

Suggested Citation

Bhargava, Saurabh and Conell-Price, Lynn and Mason, Richard and Benartzi, Shlomo, Save(d) by Design (September 1, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Saurabh Bhargava (Contact Author)

Carnegie Mellon University ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States

Lynn Conell-Price

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ( email )

United States

Richard Mason

City University London ( email )

Northampton Square
London, EC1V 0HB
United Kingdom

Shlomo Benartzi

University of California at Los Angeles ( email )

D410 Anderson Complex
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1481
United States
310-206-9939 (Phone)
310-267-2193 (Fax)

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