Sarah Smith: A simple nudge can make a big difference to level of legacy gifts

Behavioural studies have shown how much difference a few words can make when it comes to wills, writes the professor of economics

Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith

The watchwords of behavioural insights are "test, learn, adapt". Test whether a new practice works; learn what works; then adapt (or adopt) the practice. Sometimes you learn that things don't work, as the academic Peter John reported in this column recently, but simple nudges can have powerful effects.

A study I did with Michael Sanders, head of research at the Behavioural Insights Team, tested whether the wording of the will-making process affected whether people left money to charity. We tested a simple ask: "Now that you've looked after your family and friends, I'd like to talk to you about charity. Would you like to leave a charitable gift in your will?" We also tested a stronger ask that added two sentences: "Now that you've looked after your family and friends, I'd like to talk to you about charity. Many of our customers like to leave a gift to charity in their will. Are there any charitable causes that you're passionate about?"

The results showed the remarkable effect that just a few words can have. The simple ask - reminding people about charitable bequests - doubled the number of people making provision for charity in their wills, from 6 per cent with no prompt to 12 per cent. Adding the additional social and emotional content increased this further to 17 per cent.

Further analysis revealed an interesting pattern: almost the entire increase came from people without children. Among those with children, the effect of the nudges was negligible. People with children leave money to charity (5 per cent in our control group), but those who do not already make a bequest are much less susceptible to being nudged than those without children.

The results of our trial have encouraged firms of solicitors to adopt these types of prompt. Remember A Charity reports an increase in the number of solicitors that ask about charitable bequests. An online platform, Trust Inheritance, introduced a version of the stronger ask. We are continuing to test, learn and adapt, following up the study with trials that test a wider range of prompts.

Sarah Smith is professor of economics at Bristol University. The trials are being carried out as a partnership between the University of Bristol, the Behavioural Insights Team and Remember A Charity

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