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Key Takeaways & Insights

As a plan sponsor, mastering six simple basic behavioral finance concepts will help put your colleagues on track for a secure retirement. By having a basic understanding of these concepts, you will be able to:


  • Identify patterns that negatively impact your employee’s retirement savings.
  • Build investment lineups that account for these biases.
  • Improve the retirement readiness of your colleagues and put them on track for a secure retirement.

Basic Behavioral Finance Concepts Applied to Participant-Directed DC Plans

Choice Architecture and Framing:

How choices are presented to people has a significant influence on what actions they decide to take. If a sponsor designs a 401(k) plan requiring participants to opt-in, or actively sign up to join the plan, typically 20 to 40 percent of the population will not participate. On the other hand, with an opt-out architecture, 10 percent of the same eligible population will actively choose not to participate. This is a significant difference.


Inertia, or a tendency to remain unchanged, manifests itself in ways. First, in an opt-in plan design, employees who do not join the plan as soon as they are eligible often wait years to join (or never join at all), creating a huge opportunity cost. Remember, retirement plans work because of regular contributions and the compound growth of invested assets over multiple market cycles. Second, few employees actively increase their savings rate on their own, and few regularly review their investment allocations and make changes to their overall risk allocation.

Information or Choice Overload:

The typical 401(k) plan today offers between ten and twenty discrete fund choices, not including target-date funds. Most plan sponsors and advisers focus on discrete fund choices as opposed to building investment menus for different types of investors, creating asset-class duplication in a lineup. Most participants are overwhelmed with this much choice, and without guidance from the plan sponsor, they often invest an equal percentage into each fund, chase hot funds, or invest 100 percent of their contributions into one fund, often choosing the most conservative or the most aggressive funds. This lack of asset allocation increases risk exposures and leads to an investment strategy that isn’t aligned with the participants’ risk tolerance or financial goals.

Recency Bias:

This cognitive bias convinces us newer information is more valuable than older information. In investments, the most common application of the bias is to overweight recent performance or long-term performance. Participants rebalancing their portfolios and overallocating to the best performers of the recent quarter may subject themselves to a pattern of “buying high and selling low.” A much better strategy is to focus on performance over longer periods of time, up to and including a full business cycle, and allocated assets to a diversified portfolio. This ever changing optimal allocation challenge is another reason why target date portfolios may be an appealing option for many retirement plan participants.

Round Number Bias and Anchoring:

Absent a matching contribution from an employer, most employees will save to a round number. And when a match is introduced, participants tend to save to the level of the match cap. For example, if your plan matches 50 cents on the dollar to 5% of pay, most participants will anchor on the 5% match cap as their savings percentage. The unintended consequence is that most participants will set their savings level to this number, and this may not be the right savings amount for them to reach their income replacement goal.

The Pain of Loss Far Exceeds the Joy of Gain:

During events such as significant market declines, some participants will change their asset allocation by moving to less volatile asset classes, never returning to reallocate and therefore missing market advances.

This is because the fear of loss is a far greater motivator to most people than the opportunity of gain. Financial loss is more palpable, visceral, and real than the more ephemeral satisfaction associated with economic gain. As a result, people go out of their way to avoid losses, but that aversion to loss may cost them tens of thousands of dollars in potential growth over the long run.

Structuring 401(k) Plan Investments Based on Common Participant Behaviors

Having a basic understanding of these six behavioral finance concepts means you can take the next step to building a 401(k) investment lineup that reduces or eliminates many of these biases. Between auto-enrollment and auto-escalation, age-based target date QDIA funds, and focused fund menus, it is possible to short-circuit the cognitive biases that plague many of your current plan participants. Taken together, these actions can help plan sponsors redesign their retirement plans to put their employees on track for a secure retirement.

Cerity Partners LLC (“Cerity Partners”) is a registered investment adviser with offices in California, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. Registration of an Investment Advisor does not imply any level of skill or training. This commentary is limited to general information, and should not be construed as personal investment advice. There is no guarantee that the views and opinions expressed in this piece will come to pass. The information is deemed reliable as of the date of this commentary, but is not guaranteed, and subject to change without notice. It should not be considered as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. For information pertaining to the registration status of Cerity Partners, please contact us or refer to the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website (  For additional information about Cerity Partners, including fees and services, send for our disclosure statement as set forth on Form CRS and ADV Part 2 using the contact information herein. Please read the disclosure statement carefully before you invest or send money.

Meet the Author

Matt Gnabasik


Matt is a Partner in the Chicago office. He is a well-known speaker, author and innovator in the retirement plan industry with more than 28 years of experience. Matt specializes in simplifying complex retirement issues for his plan sponsor clients by utilizing his deep experience to drive better outcomes for participants and reduced liability for plan sponsors. His areas of expertise include strategic plan design, fiduciary best practices, employee financial wellness, investment menu design, fee analysis and negotiation and multinational savings plans.

Prior to joining Cerity Partners, he founded Blue Prairie Group, a leading ERISA-focused RIA firm serving hundreds of corporate, not-for-profit and government clients throughout the country. He is the author of two books on retirement plans: 401(k) Best Practices: A Guidebook for Plan Sponsors (2020) and Smart Choices: Selecting and Administering a Safe 401(k) Plan (2002.)

Matt holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management.

Connect with Matt

401(k) Best Practices Cover

Partner Matthew Gnabasik draws on his 30 years of experience to provide you with a strategic framework for transforming your 401(k) plan into a powerful engine for retirement readiness. Inside you’ll find actionable tips for reconfiguring plan design, employing financial wellness, finding a good advisor, and much more.

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