Defined Contribution and Participant Behavior Research Program

This program was initiated in 1994 in response to increasing interest of EBRI members in the impact of sponsor and/or provider educational efforts on the investment behavior of participants in participant-directed defined contribution plans. The initial program objective has been expanded to include aspects of interest in defined contribution plans, such as participant behavior in asset allocations, contribution levels and participation, and the response to participant behavior by plan sponsors and service providers. The first phase of the program yielded four Issue Briefs and a report to the Department of Labor and the Securities and Exchange Commission by 1996.

The primary emphasis of the second phase of the program is the creation of a multi-source longitudinal database that provides information on participant-level decisions with respect to participation, contributions, and asset allocation. EBRI member firms, policymakers, and the media find this information to be extremely important. In an attempt to enhance data-collection efforts, EBRI and the Investment Company Institute joined forces to allow for expansion of the program activities to develop the most comprehensive database on 401(k) plan participants yet assembled. Participant data include demographic, contribution, asset allocation, and loan and withdrawal activity information. The April 2016 Issue Brief presents analysis of data collected for 2014 on more than 81,000 plans with 24.9 million 401(k) plan participants and $1.9 trillion in assets. Data for year-end 2015 will be collected in the first quarter of 2016.

401(k) Balances and Changes Due to Market Volatility


  1. Annual Updates on "401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances and Loan Activity." The result of fifteen years' collaboration between EBRI and the Investment Company Institute (ICI) in the collection of data on participants in 401(k) plans, this database includes demographic information, annual contributions, plan balances, asset allocation, and loans, and is by far the most comprehensive source of information on individual plan participants.
  2. Can 401(k) Accumulations Generate Significant Income for Future Retirees? -- The November 2002 Issue Brief uses the newly developed EBRI/ICI 401(k) Accumulation Projection Model to analyze whether 401(k) accumulations are expected to generate significant income for future retirees. This model uses 401(k) participant behavior observed from millions of individual observations in the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project to project what 401(k) participants can expect from their 401(k) accumulations at retirement.

    The Influence of Automatic Enrollment, Catch-Up, and IRA Contributions on 401(k) Accumulations at Retirement-- The July 2005 Issue Brief builds on the model scenarios presented in Holden and VanDerhei (November 2002). It presents new scenarios that examine the role that 401(k) accumulations might play in retirement by analyzing certain factors that influence outcomes for 401(k) participants, including: plan design, through automatic enrollment; tax policy, through catch-up contributions; and individuals themselves, through saving in IRAs when not offered 401(k) plans.
  3. EBRI Survey on Company Stock in 401(k) Plans - The EBRI survey polled members of the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists (ISCEBS) with respect to company stock investment options, whether employer contributions are required to be invested in company stock, average percentage of company stock in the employees' accounts, restrictions on selling the company stock, and blackout periods. Additional questions examined perceptions of the Enron situation, appropriate limits for investment in company stock and the role of the government, and perceptions on public policy issues related to company stock in 401(k) plans. Survey Results
  4. "Contribution Behavior of 401(k) Plan Participants". The October 2001 Issue Brief examines the 1999 contribution behavior of 1.7 million 401(k) plan participants drawn from the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project. The findings in this paper build on previous academic research examining the contribution activity of 401(k) participants, by using a large sample of participants in a wide range of plan sizes and by examining in detail the factors that influence contribution activity.
  5. EBRI Testimony Before Congress on 401(k) Plans and Company Stock:
    • Testimony by Dallas Salisbury for the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight Hearing on Retirement Security and Defined Benefit Pension Plans June 20, 2002
    • Testimony by Jack VanDerhei, Temple University and research director of the EBRI Fellows Program before the Senate Finance Committee (Feb. 27, 2002) and House Ways and Means Committee (Feb. 26, 2002) on “Retirement Security and Defined Contribution Pension Plans: The Role of Company Stock in 401(k) Plans.”
    • Testimony by Jack VanDerhei, Temple University and research director of the EBRI Fellows Program, before the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, Feb. 13, 2002, on “The Role of Company Stock in 401(k) Plans.”
    • Written testimony by Dallas Salisbury, EBRI President and CEO, an expert witness at the Feb. 7, 2002, hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on “Protecting the Pensions of Working Americans: Lessons From the Enron Debacle.” The testimony includes a copy of the EBRI survey on company stock in 401(k) plans.
  6. "A Behavioral Model for Predicting Employee Contributions to 401(k) Plans," North American Actuarial Journal. This article, originally presented at the Society of Actuaries' Retirement 2000 Symposia, provides the initial results of a new model that will allow employers to predict employee's contributions as a function of demographic information as well as plan design parameters.   The model allows for complete specification of the match rate and the amount of employee's contribution matched as well as more detailed two-tier formulae.
  7. "USA Accounts and Employer Plans: Design Issues to Avoid Destruction," Employee Benefit Research Institute, March 22, 1999.  This research analyzed the potential impact of the original USA Accounts proposed by President Clinton in his 1999 State of the Union address.  The potential disruption for plan sponsors as a result of ADP/ACP testing difficulties was quantified.  Three weeks after this analysis was distributed, an alternative proposal was released by the federal government that would allow contributions to these accounts to be included in the employer's nondiscrimination tests.
  8. EBRI Issue Brief no. 176, August 1996, "Worker Investment Decisions: An Analysis of Large 401(k) Plan Data" This Issue Brief examines the asset allocation decisions of 401(k) plan participants working for three large employers (AT&T, IBM Corporation, and New York Life Insurance Company) with a total of 180,000 employees. It is a companion to the June 1996 EBRI Issue Brief.
  9. EBRI Issue Brief no. 174, June 1996, "Contribution Rates and Plan Features: An Analysis of Large 401(k) Plan Data" This Issue Brief focuses on how participant contribution decisions were directly impacted by plan-specific features, such as the matching formula and the limits imposed on participant contributions (both by the plan and by the law).
  10. EBRI Issue Brief no. 169, January 1996, "Participant Education: Actions and Outcomes" This Issue Brief is based on surveys conducted in 1995 of participant-directed retirement plan service providers, plan sponsors, and workers to analyze and quantify the provision of educational material within such plans. The surveys focused on the types of educational services provided, the subject matter covered, and the impact of the material on worker decision-making. The first section analyzes participant attitudes and knowledge regarding participant-directed retirement plans. The second section examines the services provided to plan sponsors. The final section presents an analysis of educational material provided to workers by plan sponsors and an exploratory analysis of its impact.
  11. EBRI Issue Brief, no. 160, April 1995, "Can We Save Enough to Retire? Participant Education in Defined Contribution Plans." This Issue Brief examines the public policy issues involved in participant education, discusses selected educational efforts and provides preliminary findings on their impact, and presents estimates of workers' relative preferences among various plan characteristics.


For more information on this program, please contact Jack VanDerhei at 202-659-0670 or via email at

Updated August 3, 2017