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Manipulate Me: The Booming Business in Behavioral Finance

A Bentley Motors Ltd. Mulsanne luxury sedan at a dealership in Beverly Hills, California. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg
A Bentley Motors Ltd. Mulsanne luxury sedan at a dealership in Beverly Hills, California. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg

It's hard to find a place today where concepts of behavioral finance aren’t being applied to real-world situations. From London to Washington to Sydney, governments are experimenting with the psychology of decision-making and trying to “nudge” citizens toward better behaviors, whether that means saving more for retirement or signing an organ donation card. Meanwhile, businesses see opportunities for higher profits. To grab more attention and dollars from consumers, companies as far afield as banks and fitness-app makers carefully design their offerings with consumers’ decision-making quirks in mind.

Many behavioral interventions work, whether at reducing litter and power usage or boosting savings rates and organ donations. Yet these successes aren’t the whole story. Even after rigorous experimentation and data analysis, the best-intentioned nudges can fall flat or backfire. Some may be behavioral band-aids that don’t address deeper structural problems such as stagnating wages. Nevertheless, consumers have jumped on the bandwagon, eager to be manipulated into the best version of themselves, and businesses are rushing to meet the demand.