Tying With Your Hands

Economists have long recognized the potential value of artificially restricting one’s choices. Tying your hands can be useful in strategic situations. The old idea of burning bridges behind an army so they can’t retreat is a classic example.

Strategic situations usually involve you and some adversary, like an opposing army, a competing bidder, or maybe the goalkeeper when you are a shooter trying to make a penalty kick in soccer.

The first economist I know of to apply that same logic to strategic interactions between a person and their future self is Thomas Schelling, although there may have been others. Schelling wrote about various strategies for achieving self-control, like throwing out all the ice cream in the freezer when you go on a diet, or writing a check to make a large donation to a group you despise like the KKK, which you only mail if you break your pledge to stop smoking.

Jim Holt writes an interesting piece in today’s New York Times Magazine about state-run lists that compulsive gamblers can sign up for that restrict their future ability to gamble at state casinos. If you gamble anyway, they can arrest you and keep all your winnings.

Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests it seems to work pretty well, although that is not what the story is about.


a10041976

There's a more famous example: Demosthenes, the Greek orator.

And to keep himself studying without interruption "two or three months together," Demosthenes shaved "one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.

The story is told in Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

UCDavisecon

I have never heard of the "check to the KKK" trick, though I am very interested in the isssue of strategic actions of your future self. So I could be misinterpreting your explanation, but I don't see how you can credibly threaten to punish your future self for smoking if you are depending on his cooperation to mail the check. If you could somehow combine a wire transfer device with a smoke detector, I could see how this might work, but it would also have to be irreversible.

Another interesting example of this behavior is internet services such as www.covenanteyes.com, which will send a report to your wife listing all of the pornographic websites that you visit. And your future self cannot disable the program without your wife finding out. People pay a monthly fee to impose an additional cost to their future self's "bad" behavior.

shaungallagher

I have heard of a similar notion in ethics, in which a person might concede that if his own child were tortured and killed right in front of him, his Future Self might abandon his opposition to the death penalty. However, the general argument is that such a hypothetical scenario does not disqualify his Present Self from making moral judgments against the death penalty.

smili

I guess if I go in tomorrow and quit this job I'm not liking so well I'll force myself to find another.

Gaijin51

Right, the check to the KKK thing probably wouldn't be so effective because it is still in your control.

I like that anecdote about Demosthenes!

One way to quit smoking is to join the military, because you cannot smoke in boot camp. It is a pretty drastic measure of course. It is a bad idea to think of boot camp as a way to get into shape. If you are not already in reasonable shape, you are going to have a tough time.

noto

I have heard from some behavioral economists that part of the demand for homes (mortgages) is that real estate serves as a commitment device that reduces liquidity of your future self and thus prevents your future self from over-consuming.

a10041976

There's a more famous example: Demosthenes, the Greek orator.

And to keep himself studying without interruption "two or three months together," Demosthenes shaved "one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.

The story is told in Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

UCDavisecon

I have never heard of the "check to the KKK" trick, though I am very interested in the isssue of strategic actions of your future self. So I could be misinterpreting your explanation, but I don't see how you can credibly threaten to punish your future self for smoking if you are depending on his cooperation to mail the check. If you could somehow combine a wire transfer device with a smoke detector, I could see how this might work, but it would also have to be irreversible.

Another interesting example of this behavior is internet services such as www.covenanteyes.com, which will send a report to your wife listing all of the pornographic websites that you visit. And your future self cannot disable the program without your wife finding out. People pay a monthly fee to impose an additional cost to their future self's "bad" behavior.

shaungallagher

I have heard of a similar notion in ethics, in which a person might concede that if his own child were tortured and killed right in front of him, his Future Self might abandon his opposition to the death penalty. However, the general argument is that such a hypothetical scenario does not disqualify his Present Self from making moral judgments against the death penalty.

smili

I guess if I go in tomorrow and quit this job I'm not liking so well I'll force myself to find another.

Gaijin51

Right, the check to the KKK thing probably wouldn't be so effective because it is still in your control.

I like that anecdote about Demosthenes!

One way to quit smoking is to join the military, because you cannot smoke in boot camp. It is a pretty drastic measure of course. It is a bad idea to think of boot camp as a way to get into shape. If you are not already in reasonable shape, you are going to have a tough time.

noto

I have heard from some behavioral economists that part of the demand for homes (mortgages) is that real estate serves as a commitment device that reduces liquidity of your future self and thus prevents your future self from over-consuming.