MIAMI - Try a couple tests, says Shlomo Benartzi, professor and co-chair of the Behavioral Decision-Making Group UCLA Anderson School of Management and chief behavioral economist at Allianz Global Investors.
Test One: Ask a potential retiree: Would you put down $100 on a chance to win $100? Would you put down $50? Would you put down $10?
"Old people will not do it,'' he said. "They are so sensitive to losses they are not willing to stomach a tiny loss."
Test two: Ask them whether they would be interested in a $100,000 savings account paying 4 percent a year or a plan giving them $650 of monthly income, for life. They're likely to vote for the savings account, which they control
But take it a step further. Presentation matters. Even if the question is focused on the $650 a month, it matters how you present it to the potential retiree.
If the $650 a month is presented as a return on an investment, 21 percent of respondents would be interested. But, if you frame it as lifetime monthly income ... 70 percent respond positively
"How we look at things makes a huge difference,'' Benartzi told attendees of the opening session Wednesday of the National Investment Company Service Association 2011 Conference & Expo.
The underlying message though is that retirees are very sensitive to any perceived loss of control over their assets -- and are loath to turn it over even in exchange for guaranteed income.
It's an "uphill battle to try and provide guarantees to those who are most sensitive to losses,'' he said.
A large part of the problem is how amorphous planning for retirement is -- and how hard it is to make the rewards of either savings or guaranteed income vivid.
When a person buys a cup of fancy coffee, the person knows it's $4 and what is going to come back. And will have it in hand, momentarily.
But, "retirement money is the exact opposite,'' he said. "You put it aside and you don't know what your'e going to get back or when you are going to get it back."
One solution is simple, research indicates. Show people how they're going to look as they age. So they know what is coming down the road, he said.
Then, they start to pick up their savings. It takes some "entertainment" he says to get engagement.
One simple way to get that engagement, he told the advisors and other executives at the conference, is to recommend that they "save more tomorrow,'' he said.
If they can be encouraged to put next year's raise into savings and the next year's and the year after that, savings rates improve dramatically, he said.
He was part of a team that got Philips Electronics, through Vanguard Group, to set up such a plan.
And the effect was proven at a mid-sized manufacturing company before that. The work force was low paid. But savings went from 3.5 percent to 13.6 percent over 3.5 years when they could defer the saving until they got the fresh stream of income.
A download of Benartzi's report on the post-retirement crisis -- and the role behavior plays -- is below.