Enticing Our Better Angels

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”

     —Mae West


Changing or improving human behavior is hard. Even with the most dedicated and resolute will, redirecting one’s energies from destructive or simply undesired action takes dedication, adequate resources, time, and support. Addicts know this. Psychologists know this. Turns out, behavioral economists know the challenges inherent to human irrationality especially well.

As researchers Gharad Bryan (Yale), Dean Karlan (Northwestern), and Scott Nelson (MIT) note in their 2010 Annual Review of Economics paper entitled “Commitment Devices,” “People set goals. They promise to smoke less, to save more, to drink less, to work more, to eat less, and to exercise more. They set goals with varying levels of formality, making promises to themselves, vows to spouses, or bets with friends. These same people regularly fail to meet their goals. They keep smoking, spend money on things they later regret, and throw out perished vegetables while eating chips.”

So what is one to do if Saint Augustine’s lament, “Please God, make me good, but not just yet,” is overly familiar? Cue the ever-popular self-commitment device, or “precommitment” device as coined by economist Robert Strotz in 1956, to help us lesser mortals conquer temptation, sloth—heck, any of the original sins. And if you do not believe in sin, there is good news that perhaps hedonism is not as unhealthy as previously assumed; as Julia Child reminded us, “Everything in moderation … including moderation.”

Gharad, Karlan, and Nelson make the distinction between “hard commitments” and “soft commitments” based on if the person encounters “real economic penalties for failure, or rewards for success” versus psychological consequences for not sticking with a program. Commitment devices range from purchasing an expensive gym membership as motivation to exercise to using nicotine patches to help stop smoking, enrolling in automatic deposits to increase savings and/or retirement contributions, buying a one-serving, miniature container of ice cream instead of a pint, and much, much more.

In fact, economists believe social sharing may be one of the reasons there is an increased demand for commitment devices in popular culture. The famous thought-experiment of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” appears to have evolved in our increasingly curated #picsoritdidnthappen culture of, “If I signal a self-improvement journey and I fail to post status updates and progress pics, did it even happen?” “Observability,” according to some research, is a dual-edged motivator—great for those of us who need an audience to shine and potentially disingenuous and disincentivizing for those of us who will say one thing to “save face” and do quite another in the comfort of our own homes.

As behavioral economist Daniel Goldstein explores in his 2011 TED Talk, “The Battle Between Your Present and Future Self,” there is a battle between the immediate gratification of what we want now and our lack of imagination about what the future holds. The capacity to see how current behaviors may influence the future can be a powerful motivator to change course. Commitment devices may work for some folks, but Goldstein seeks to help people see their future (financial) selves without the aid of commitment devices. There is something freeing about Goldstein’s approach—show people what is possible versus giving up agency and control to a device, which most of us know how to game anyway.