One of my fondest memories as a kid, and I remember it like it was yesterday, is lying next to my brother in the back of my dad’s Rambler station wagon.

Seats down, cozily tucked into our plaid cloth sleeping bags, no seatbelts, roaring down highway 101. It was a familiar scene in my family, since we often went camping, always left at night, and my brother and I usually slept as my dad drove.

When I tell my kids these stories today, they simply cannot fathom a time when something like this could have ever occurred. “You weren’t even sitting in your seats” they say, “and with no seatbelts!” Their voices are filled with disbelief.

So what happened? How is it that an entire population of older Americans drove for years without a seat belt while younger Americans can’t even imagine pulling out of the driveway unbuckled? Getting Americans to wear their seatbelts is one of the great behavioral change success stories of our time. If you think about it, it’s really quite remarkable. But it’s not a mystery, it is behavioral science.

Crash test dummies Vince and Larry were first introduced to the American public by the Ad Council in 1985 to advocate the use of safety belts in cars. Even though they retired in 1999, others have carried the message forward. In addition to the “Click it or Ticket” belief campaign, various states instituted what are known as “primary” and “secondary” seat belt laws, meaning that law enforcement officers could issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. And all of this was framed by a seatbelt literacy effort that drummed its way into our subconscious.

Today, wearing seat belts is an accepted social norm across America, although campaigns like these continue to be funded because of the ease with which we can fall back into bad habits if we are not constantly reminded. And we owe it all to three powerful forces—Context, Knowledge and Beliefs—which, if properly harnessed, can shape behavior… even savings behavior.

Context. This is nothing more than the environment in which we find ourselves on a daily basis. The most powerful contextual driver for “clicking it” is that seriously annoying chime that just won’t stop until you comply. The retirement planning equivalent is auto-enrollment. But it’s just one example among many, which if properly utilized, can profoundly impact savings behavior.

Knowledge. There really is no substitute for having a basic understanding of cause and effect. Just like people needed to understand the “why” of buckling their seatbelt, they need to understand the same for saving. This is a tough one since there is no stand-in for financial literacy and there is unfortunately no quick fix. Learning takes time and learning as a society takes not only time, but a learning infrastructure; something we don’t currently have around financial literacy.

Beliefs. Whereas knowledge says “It will cost me twice the amount if I buy this on credit,” belief says “I don’t have the money and can’t buy this until I do.” Much like my own kids believe they cannot leave the driveway without a seatbelt on.

I am a huge fan of behavioral finance, but I am also fearful that we are simplifying the cure for complex behaviors (spending and not saving) to the point where we fix the symptom and not the problem. In my estimation, it will take much more than behavioral finance and the blissful inertia of “set-it-and-forget-it” to truly motivate Americans to reach retirement readiness.

It will take context where saving is easier than not, knowledge about how and why to save, and a deep-seated belief that saving for the future is the right thing to do. Clicking your seatbelt was no more intuitive 45 years ago than saving for the future is today, but in hindsight the idea of driving unprotected seems silly. Let’s hope the concept of protecting our financial future becomes just as normal as the idea of strapping on a seatbelt.


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