Learning from the lab: Applying the messenger effect to short-term savings behavior

Messenger effect
Experiment Type
Lab Learning
Save more
Increase short-term savings
Focus Areas
Lab Research
Behavioral Concepts
Trusted messenger

What Happened

It is unclear. The "expert" messengers did affect participants' decision to change their savings, but it did affect participants' call to action to save (shown by clicking their initial intent to save more). Overall, this reflects that while messengers may have an effect on savings behavior, they should be cautious about whether they lead others to start saving less or more.

Lessons Learned

This study suggests that people may have a strong mental bias towards 3% savings, even if anchored at 5%. Also, beyond this, these results reflected that specific messengers may have an effect on savings behavior, but it remains unclear.


It has been well documented over the years that Americans are chronically under-saving for unexpected expenses. Finding ways to encourage short-term savings will be critical in helping people address inevitable financial rainy days. While many nudges, tips, and tricks are being developed, it will be critical to understand how to best deliver them and the most effective messenger of these ideas and offers.

Research suggests that who delivers a message, tip, or trick can change how that message is received. For example, people are more likely to respond favorably to a message that is delivered by experts or people they know and trust. In an online study, we investigated whether we could leverage this “messenger effect” and encourage people to increase their short-term savings balances.

Key Insights

In this study, we examined the effect of different messengers and different messages on hypothetical short-term savings. The messengers included hypothetical employers and different types of experts. The messages included two commonly-recommended short-term savings goals—one based on a percentage of income and another based on a multiple of expenses. We predicted that participants would be more likely to increase their hypothetical short-term savings when recommendations came from experts and employers compared to a control (in which no messenger was specified). We further predicted that people would be more likely to increase their savings when they saw a recommendation of a percentage of income, since it seems more achievable, relative to a multiple of expenses.


We ran an online study across approximately 3,000 people in which participants were told to imagine a hypothetical job from which they earn $65,000 per year, have benefits, and are currently saving 5% of their income into a savings account. They were then shown a hypothetical email that that contained

a savings account goal. Participants were randomized to an email group in which the messenger was an employer, ‘an expert,’ financial advisors, or made-up financial group; there was additionally a control group in which no messenger was specified. Participants also received recommendations to have 10% of their income as a savings goal, three to six months’ worth of expenses as a savings goal, or no specific goal (control). Participants could then click on one of two buttons in the email, which allowed them to choose “I want to save more,” or “No thanks.”

Following clicking on the email, participants were then asked if they would like to change how much they are saving, and if so, by how much.


We found that there was no effect of messenger or of the specific savings recommendation on participants’ decision to change their savings: approximately 55% of participants said they would change their savings amount, independent of who the email came from or what the recommendation was.

We did find a difference in the call to action (the button) in the email that participants selected according to messenger: the control, employer, and made-up financial group messenger emails all led to increased rates of participants selecting to “save more” than declining the offer. Additionally, we found a difference in button selection according to the recommendation type: both the control and 10% recommendations led to more people selecting the “save more” button than the “No thanks button;” however, there was no difference among the group that saw the expenses-based recommendation.

Finally, we looked at how much people would save among those that stated they would change their savings rate. Of those who said they would change after seeing the email, approximately 30% of participants said they would save 3% (down from the 5% in the hypothetical set-up of the study); the remaining approximately 70% primarily selected 8-15%. This 3% was the most commonly selected amount and existed independently of the email type.

This suggests that people tend to have a strong mental bias toward saving 3%; interestingly, this bias persists even when people are anchored at a higher percentage of 5%. These results also reflect that specific messengers may have an effect on savings behaviors, but that recommenders should be cautious about whether they lead others to start saving less or more.