In Sweden, all new drivers start out registered to be organ donors in the event of their passing. They have the freedom to opt out without negative consequences. Fourteen percent decide to do so and 86 percent remain organ donors. Across the Oresund, less than 10 miles away, Danes have to proactively decide whether they want to become organ donors. Less than 5 percent do, and more than 95 percent don't. On the global scale of things, Sweden and Denmark are culturally quite similar: generally credited with being open-minded, socially responsible, common-sense Scandinavians.
The vast difference between Swedish and Danish organ donor participation rates (technically "presumed consent") despite all the cultural similarities is one of the most dramatic examples of the power of policy design that takes into account pervasive human cognitive and behavioral biases to help us do what we generally think is a good thing, but often have a hard time following through with. One such bias is that, when decisions are tough, we tend to prefer the status quo; and relatedly, it's much harder to proactively opt for something, rather than to simply stick with the offered default choice. (The approach, popularized by the term 'nudging,' even led the UK Prime Minister to set up a 'nudge' policy advisory unit.)
Based on the earlier path-breaking work on human decision-making by psychologists, an increasing number of economists have pushed and developed the notion of behavioral finance over the last decade, and increasingly business leaders, policymakers and regulators are picking up on these ideas to advance financial access for the poor and to improve consumer protection that actually works in financial services. New products are being developed and new policies are being formulated not on the basis of how people ought to behave, but based on what they actually do and not do.
In Malawi, Opportunity Bank observed that farmers had a hard time holding onto to post-harvest cash and often reached the next planting season without the required resources. Based on this observation, the bank developed a commitment savings product that allows farmers to stash away post-harvest payouts and distribute them over the year to smooth cash flows. The introduction of this project was accompanied by a randomized impact evaluation. The effects were significant. Farmers with access to the new product managed their savings and cash flow better, and in the subsequent season used more agricultural inputs (a 26 percent increase), had higher crop sales (a 22 percent increase in value of crop output) and a 17 percent increase in household expenditure relative to a control group without such access.
There are other such examples of behaviorally-informed product innovations. Green Bank in the Philippines offers a SEED (Save, Earn, Enjoy, Deposit) commitment savings product, which enables clients to withdraw from the account only once their goal date or amount is reached. Jipange KuSave in Kenya has tested the provision of interest-free loans with a third of the amount held back as savings. And Bancomer in Mexico has developed a savings product concept that mirrors the savings behavior of low-income Mexican households who literally use different cookies jars to separate savings for different future purposes.
Similarly, policymakers have begun recognizing that statutes on the books that ignore the reality of low-income families are of limited value. They have started to incorporate demand-side insights into their approaches. In Mexico, for example, the financial consumer protection agency "mystery shopped" financial services to assess how well bank staff were conveying disclosure norms to consumers. They found widespread misinformation and biases towards different types of personalities and even styles of dress that prompted them to rethink their approach to disclosure.
In the Philippines, consumer testing of credit contracts has led to reforms to the Truth-in-Lending Act. And in Senegal, policymakers have used consumer surveys to test and improve the functioning of dispute resolution mechanisms.
This progress is good news. Globally, according to the Gallup/World Bank Findex data, half of working adults globally remain outside of the formal financial system, so do three-quarters of the poor. That does not mean that they don't use formal financial services. It means that they have to rely on the age-old informal mechanisms of friends and families, the money lenders, the pawn brokers, the rotating savings club and livestock that can easily die or be stolen as the only vehicle to accumulate savings and capital.
These informal mechanisms tend to be incomplete, unreliable and very expensive.
Global policymakers, particularly in developing and emerging markets know that inclusive, local financial systems are an important ingredient for social and economic progress. They also know that they need to ensure stability for the system -- consumer protection for the more vulnerable, in particular. More than 35 countries have made a public commitment to financial inclusion and have formulated national strategies. By being more empirical and better informed in their policy choices, they increase the chance of accelerating access for the poor to the broad range of financial services they need to improve and better manage their lives. One of the truly exciting insights from the behavioral finance approach is that small changes in policy and product design can have a disproportionate and hugely positive impact.