I have written before about my thesis that 401(k) litigation, and the tendency of individuals to pursue such suits, may be driven in part by the psychology of retirement benefits and the uncertainty for employees as to whether they will be able to fund their retirement that these types of retirement savings vehicles create, particularly as opposed to pensions, which, on anecdotal evidence, seem to generate far less litigation than 401(k) plans. Along these lines, this article out of today’s New York Times about behavioral economics and the impact of consumer choice on 401(k) contributions caught my eye. The article compares retirement savings to research into the strange behavioral distortions that appear to underlie overeating, and discusses how the Pension Protection Act is written in a manner intended to remove certain behavioral distortions from the decision to make 401(k) contributions. Is there a linkage between the security of retirement and the tendency to sue over retirement benefits, and if so, can restructuring the benefit programs, such as in the manner pursued by the Pension Protection Act, reduce the extent of litigation over such benefits?
I certainly don’t pretend to know the answer, and I suspect academic research doesn’t provide an answer to this question at this point either. But the article sums up the research into consumer behavior as follows: “[w]hether it’s 401(k)’s or food, the way choices are presented to people — what the economist Richard Thaler calls ‘choice architecture’ — has a huge effect on the decisions they make.” If we are presenting 401(k)s to employees in a way that makes for retirement uncertainty and for doubt (or at least fears, founded or unfounded) as to the abilities and fidelity of those managing them, the question becomes whether we are creating a “choice architecture” that points people towards litigation, rather than away from it. If, on the other hand, we can create an environment of greater trust in the operation of those types of retirement vehicles, perhaps employees will tend away from trying to resolve concerns over retirement funding through the blunt instrument of litigation.