StickK To Your Commitments

Back when I was an undergraduate, I took a class from the future Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling. One day in class, he was talking about commitment problems: when you want to achieve a goal, but lack the self control to do it. As I recall, he offered two pieces of advice for those trying to lose weight. The first was to clean out the refrigerator and throw away anything you might want to eat in a moment of weakness. The second was to write a check for a substantial amount of money to the American Nazi Party, seal it up in a stamped envelope, and vow to drop it in the mail if you break your diet.

If you really do intend to mail that letter after cheating on your diet, it serves as a commitment device. Not only does the diet pay off in terms of lost weight, but it also keeps you from subsidizing a cause you despise. I’ve always wondered whether anyone would actually mail the check. If they won’t do it, the whole exercise is likely to be a waste of time.

That is where the new Web site StickK.com comes in. Launched this week by economists Ian Ayres (also a Freakonomics guest blogger) and Dean Karlan, StickK is there to facilitate commitment contracts. Want to quit smoking? Go to StickK and sign a legally binding contract that requires you to donate a specified amount of money to charity if you fail. (You can set it up so that you admit to StickK when you have failed, as in Schelling’s example, or else you can appoint a friend to be responsible and admit it for you.)

Missing from StickK, at least as far as I know, is the ability to give money to pro-Nazi groups or the Klan. All the charities they partner with seem pretty wholesome.

Ayres, for one, seems to be benefiting from StickK — he has lost 25 pounds using a commitment contract.

I am immensely curious to see how this project plays out. I think there is little doubt that commitment contracts of this type help us accomplish our goals. People find it much easier to stick to a diet after a heart attack scare, or to quit smoking after a cancer scare. Whether people are willing to impose costs on themselves remains an open question. In part, it comes down to whether people really want to change, or whether they are just faking it.

I would not bet against Yale economists when it comes to an entrepreneurial venture. When Barry Nalebuff started a company to make bottled tea in 1998, I never would have guessed a decade later that Honest Tea would be available almost everywhere.

Reader Alon Nir also brought another form of commitment contract to my attention: the SnuzNLuz alarm clock. Every time you hit snooze, the clock donates $10 of your money to a charity that you hate. [Correction: Thanks to a reader for informing us that the SnuzNLuz is, alas, just a prank, and not a product on the market.]

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  1. Lauren Friedman says:

    You wrote:
    >Missing from StickK, at least as far as I know, is the ability to give money to pro-Nazi groups or the Klan. All the charities they partner with seem pretty wholesome.

    Actually, from their FAQ:
    What is an Anti-charity?
    During the contract creation process, you have the option of selecting an Anti-charity as the Recipient of Stakes. The purpose of Anti-charity is to give you an added incentive to achieve your goal by designating your stakes, upon failure, to go to an organization that you strongly oppose. You should select an organization which promotes values that are the most contrary to your own. We currently have a selection of Anti-charities which fall on either side of the following highly contentious issues: Abortion, Gay Marriage, Gun Control, and the Environment.

    http://www.stickk.com/faq.php

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  2. Brooks says:

    While the SnuzNLuz is a pretty entertaining idea, it’s just an April Fools prank.

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  3. Nina says:

    Regardless of the outcome (guess I failed that economy class back in high school), it’s a great site to know about and tell your friends about!
    Thanks Freakonomics, once again, for bringing forth conversation starters!

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  4. Prof. S. says:

    I was just going to suggest those same ideas as “anti-charities.” I think some people would consider donating to the opposing political party the equivalent of giving to Nazis – at least based on what I read on the internet.

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  5. g p burdell says:

    I made a bet with a coworker last year, and we both lost weight. We structured it so that their were no advantages to starving yourself (i.e. if you lost a ton, then that increased your handicap, so you’d have a harder time winning the next month).

    We both lost, and kept of, an average of 15 pounds.

    Competition, you see, was the motivation.

    This year, same month-to-month payout, but with strength training. We’re already seeing results with that.

    StickK sounds like a way to make it work if you don’t have a partner for the contest. And, I like the idea of the political party as the anti charity. You can rest assured I’d keep my goals if it meant keeping money out of the hands of the opposing party.

    I think I’m going to try this.

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  6. Stephen says:

    Easier to comment here than to figure out how to get the comments to the site owners. I figure if you can pimp it here, it’s fair game for comment. I realize it’s still very early, but these are my thoughts on it for what it’s worth.

    1. Seems like a very interesting idea. I think I’ll run it by my wife and see if we want to do this for losing weight.

    2. Not much info on the anti-charity. On the “charity” side, they specifically list four or five, but none are very objectionable. If you have an anticharity list, make it available to us. Agree with earlier comment that by just adding Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee that you could probably cover quite a bit of people.

    3. I’m a computer guy, and it can’t be that hard to track which people give/lose money to which charity. Add a field to the table, for crying out loud. The “we’ll randomly pick a charity for you” bit is just lazy.

    4. Assuming you can solve number 3, is there any reason that you can’t let charitable (or anti-charitable) contributions be tax deductible? Seems like it could increase contract amounts.

    5. How are you going to make money? I would charge some percentage off of failure payments, and just be transparent about it when people set up their contracts. I.e. if they succeed they get it all back, if they fail, then $19 goes to whoever and $1 goes to stickK.com.

    Overall, great idea and hope you succeed with it!

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  7. Rev Matt says:

    “Thanks to a reader for informing us that the SnuzNLuz is, alas, just a prank, and not a product on the market.”

    Not for long…

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