Financial Incentives Beat Social Norms

Financial Incentives Beat Social Norms: A Field Experiment on Retirement Information Search


Social norms and financial incentives are powerful tools to alter people’s behavior. We test whether social norms or financial incentives can lead people to look up retirement information on their pension fund’s website. We find that financial incentives increase the login rate by 70%, while social norms do not lead to more logins as the control letter. Once logged in, participants also look at their retirement information.


In an experiment with the participants of the Dutch pension fund for the retail sector (Bedrijfstakpensioenfonds voor de Detailhandel), one out of six types of letters was randomly sent to 245,712 participants. Next to the control letter, four letters displayed different social norms to activate participants to log in to their personal website for personal retirement information. In the sixth letter, it was tested whether financial incentives in the form of a lottery of 100 vouchers worth €25 is more effective than the social norm treatments.


We find that social norms are ineffective. In contrast, financial incentives increase the login rate by 70% compared to the control group. People in the financial incentives group do not merely log in to cash in the incentive, but also look at information about their pension. A back of the envelope calculation shows that the average costs per additional person logging in at the website via the financial incentive is €0.33. Importantly, the effect of financial incentives and social norms is independent of participants’ characteristics. For example, financial incentives work just as well for female as male participants.

Experiment Results


The study shows that a small financial incentive is a cost-effective measure to increase the login rate substantially. Future research is needed to examine when and what kind of financial incentives work and whether there are even more efficient alternatives. The finding that social norms were ineffective at increasing information search points to the question when social norms work and why they do not work in the ineffective cases.

Lead researchers Rob Bauer, Inka Eberhardt, Paul Smeets (all Maastricht University)

Project partners Maastricht University, Bedrijfstakpensioenfonds voor de Detailhandel

Project status finished

Project publications

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