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Staring at your old self

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Posted: 12 pm ET

Remember the first time you heard the Beatles sing "When I'm 64"?

When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now ...
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm 64?

Paul McCartney wrote it when he was 16 and first recorded it in 1966. I was 15 when I heard it, and 64 seemed ancient. I never thought I'd get to be that old. Retirement and retirement planning never entered my mind.

But here I am -- not quite 64 but getting there fast. I thought about the song when I talked to Hal Hershfield, assistant professor of marketing and a behavioral economist at New York University. Hershfield, who is himself 31 and says he already has a healthy retirement account, is studying how to persuade other youthful workers to save for their old age. "One of the predictors of saving behavior is how people feel connected to their future self. Often the future self feels like a stranger, and saving feels like giving money to a stranger," Hershfield says.

After trying and rejecting asking people to imagine themselves looking old, he and another researcher at Stanford University experimented with a virtual reality tool that allows people to see their future self when they look in what appears to be a mirror. When faced with that vision of themselves, the 20- to 35-year-old participants in the study were on average willing to save 30 percent more for retirement than those people who didn't see an age-progressed image of themselves.

Hershfield says that he also did some experiments with a program that further encouraged savers by having the vision of themselves frown back at them when they didn't increase their savings past a certain threshold. That tool didn't work. Apparently, reminding people they might get old and crabby wasn't motivating.

Hershfield is working with Allianz, a company that sells annuities and other retirement savings products, to commercialize his findings. Within about six months, he expects Allianz to be giving this tool to its sales staff, so they can use it to persuade potential customers to invest. They'll scan in your picture and age it so you can see yourself and be encouraged to save more or buy an annuity.

It's too late for me. I already see the wrinkles for real.

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