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.]