Who/what nags better: Your cell phone or your mother?

A study by four Ivy League economists—Dean Karlan of Yale, Sendhil Mullainathan and Margaret McConnell of Harvard, and Jonathan Zinman of Dartmouth—has shown that gentle text-based nagging can induce people to save more. As part of a study, they worked with banks in the emerging markets of Bolivia, Peru, and the Philippines. When people opened accounts and encouraged to commit to saving certain amounts, the banks randomly assigned some customers to receive reminders via text. Some notes reminded customers that they had focused on a particular goal, others reminded savers that there were incentives for saving (like higher interest rates), and some did both. The conclusion: “Individuals who received monthly reminders saved 6 percent more than individuals who did not. They were also 3 percent more likely to reach their savings goals by the end of the savings program.” The most effective form of messaging was one that reminded people both that they needed to save in order to reach a personal goal and that there were incentives for doing so. Such nudges boosted savings by nearly 16 percent.

This paragraph comes from a Slate piece with the headline, “The Jewish Mother in Your Cell Phone.” The real question should be, what if, instead of your cell phone, your actual mother, or your father for that matter, reminded you to save money once a month? Which nagging would beef up your bank account better? As research into boosting savings progresses, more of these nudges will have to be put head-to-head.

This sort of process has occurred over the last decade in political research on one seminal question: How do you get people to vote? For instance, in-person contacts increase voting more than direct mailings, which work better than phone calls. Publicizing one’s voting history (or that of their neighbors) boosts voting more than a generic reminder to fulfill your civic duty.

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