Credible Commitments and Embarrassment, Or Why I’m Telling You I’m Running the Stockholm Marathon

Yesterday, Ian Ayres blogged about his recent weight loss, and frankly, it’s a pretty impressive achievement. The secret, Ian tells us, is finding a clever way to solve the problem in which today’s best intentions are betrayed by our rather less determined selves tomorrow.

Ian’s solution — committing to fine yourself if you fail — is pretty ingenious. So ingenious, in fact, that he has set up a company to allow you to fine yourself for future transgressions. Ian is a smart guy, so I think there’s a good chance that his company will succeed. But equally, I fear he faces some pretty formidable competition. There is a much cheaper way to commit your future self to some targets, since the fear of failure, public ridicule, and embarrassment can be harnessed (for free!) to help solve our own commitment problems. Let me explain with an example.

I’m going to publicly declare my major fitness goal on this blog, and rely on this blog’s readers to ridicule me if I fail. So, here goes: this summer, I’m going to be visiting the IIES at Stockholm University, and on the last day of my visit, I’m planning on running the Stockholm Marathon. And I hope that you, dear reader, will keep me honest. It would be embarrassing to fail publicly, and I suspect it would be embarrassing enough that today’s public statement of my running goals will keep my future self pretty darn motivated.

Indeed, having now made this commitment, in 94 days time, I’ll look forward to sharing with you some thoughts on whether it helped.

When I think hard about the general issue here, I see many ways in which all of us use similar approaches to solve our commitment problems. Lots of economists sign up to present soon-to-be-written papers at conferences, in the hope that the fear of embarrassment will force them to write the paper sooner. One reason that young assistant profs work hard to gain placement at the best universities is to commit their future selves to keep up with the latest advances in economics (or else risk being shamed by their bright colleagues). Past students of mine have repeatedly told me to be a bit of a bastard in the classroom, as they find the persistent threat of embarrassment (if they are unprepared) to be a useful motivator. I know that when I teach, I begin class by over-promising on what I can deliver in the classroom, in the hope of forcing myself to keep focused.

And so we see that friends teasing each other about potential failures can actually turn out to play a productive role, if harnessed appropriately. In this story, those of us who tease our friends are the heroes, while StickK.com provides a solution for those people whose friends are too darn polite to give them a hard time.

I asked Ayres about why he thought that his fine-based commitments could compete with my much cheaper embarrassment-based commitments, and he gave an interesting answer:

StickK also makes it easy to implement your embarrassment commitment … instead of (or in addition to) a financial commitment bond, our contracts allow you to designate e-mails of friends and family supporters who receive e-mails about whether you succeed or not. So in just a few minutes, you could create a custom contract to run a marathon and send in the e-mails of people who provide the best commitment mechanism.

The commitment problem is so pervasive, and so important for so many of us, that it is always interesting to hear about the creative solutions that folks develop. So, what approaches do you use to discipline your future self?


Anonymous

I commit to giving away all of my earnings this year if I do not make it on to the next edition of "America's Ballroom Challenge."

Ezra

I did something similar, but I included a spreadsheet showing my plan for the miles and how I'm doing against the plan. I've already had friends bug me about being behind.

http://stepsonourjourney.blogspot.com/2008/02/ezras-run.html

Neal

This is obviously the solution for everyone. Get a really popular blog then allow people to call you on the things you don't do that you say you will.

But seriously, as someone who is generally apathetic and not all that concerned as what most people think of me, the financial punishment has the most appeal to me.

Chappy

I think what is missing in these recent blog posts about commitment devices is whether the thing being committed is obtainable (the posts seem to focus on the method of the device).

For example, I think 94 days to prepare for a marathon is simply inadequate if you just began running. However I assume you've already been training. I guess the point is that ridicule is a bad device if the goal is unattainable to begin with. I'd guess that the financial device forces a more realistic goal. Then again, to the degree that people are risk averse, people might set less ambitious goals.

Alex

How many times have we heard so-and-so is quitting smoking and/or going on a diet, only to find that the escapade was dropped shortly thereafter. It really depends on your level of fear of social ridicule. Internal motivation is king, and I like to use personal mantras for that.

Otto

This reminds me off the famous quote on how to learn to moderate your drinking: "Always do sober, that which you said you'd do while drunk". (Twain, Hemingway...little help?)

Zach

I think fear of embarrassment could serve as motivation for some things, but not for things like losing weight, or going to the gym. Those are things that it is well known that people often commit to them and then fail to achieve, so I don't think there would be too much embarrassment. I think at most there would be some small shame, but it could even backfire if someone enjoys a little harmless teasing from friends. I think losing money is a much more universally effective threat.

Karl

Interesting strategy... but isn't this what many people do around New Year's? Make grandiose resolutions they have a large chance of getting abandoned? Perhaps some people respond better to a positive feedback loop (some reward they are working towards) rather than a negative feedback loop (fear of embarrassment).

All that said, I am a runner and if you are starting from scratch, 94 days will not cut it. But you already know that, and to make such a public announcement about it, I'm sure you have been training, have a solid running base, and will be prepared for the event!

Myron

I tried something similar as a New Year's resolution. I was thinking about imposing a penalty for not meeting targets. However, if my pledge was to give money to charity, that made for too easy a rationalization for missing the target. You're not on track to lose the weight but at least the money going to a good cause.

To raise the stakes, the penalty should be giving money to a cause you strongly oppose. For example, if you believe in science or separation of church and state, the penalty for missing a target could be giving money to the Discovery Institute or the Huckabee campaign.

Charles

If you truly are interested in getting more fit, a varied program of weight-training, moderate interval-type cardio, and activities you enjoy is better than marathon training, which does not provide any variety, overtrains one part of the body only, and can be highly injury-producing. It is a popular misconception that people are improving overall fitness through marathoning. Ask any personal trainer, kinesiologist, or physiotherapist.

Cassandra

The problem is that some people, myself included, tend to tell people about grandiose plans they have laid down, without ever actually fulfilling them. Thus, were I to tell people I was running a marathon, they would nod and smile, without any expectation that I would fulfil it. And as I am aware of this, the "embarrassment" of not reaching the goal I'd set myself is correspondingly less- I had no high expectations to live up to. Sadly, this method seems somewhat path-dependent- but I like the idea of fining myself!

Michael

Justin,

The "quota" (18,000) for the Stockholm Marathon was reached on December 11. There's a waiting list of over 2,000 persons.

Unless, you planned this run a long time in advance (which would contradict the Ian Ayres angle) you won't be attaining the goal of completing the Stockholm Marathon.

However, this is irrelevant to the question at hand. Why would you set an unrealistic goal (such as a full marathon) that you are almost certain to not reach? Why not run a half-marathon (21km)? One doesn't need to be in spectacular shape (only decent) and it's a lot more realistic...

susan

Two New Year's Day ago (with my 41st b'day quickly approaching) I vowed to run a marathon to celebrate turning 40 and told everyone I came could so there would be no backing out. It was one of the best experiences of my life! Good luck!

Alex

I have been using and recommending the system outlined here for years. However, a small refinement makes it work better. Financial incentives work a lot less well than ones cued into the part of your brain that handles discomfort. This is not necessarily the same thing as embarrassment or mild financial loss.
I helped a relative lose wait using this system by agreeing to be her 'forfeit broker'. If she didn't lose the wait she wanted to lose, she had to call up and apologize to an old friend who in her mind had behaved horribly. I ensured that she'd have to carry out the forfeit if she didn't keep her promise to herself. The weight fell off like magic.
The person entering the system has to choose the forfeit themselves, and ideally chooses one that accesses the 'cringe point' in that person's value system. The 'cringe point' almost always relates to charged issues in someone's interpersonal relationships and sense of justice.
Don't set your goal too high, though. Otherwise, agony ensues.

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Michael

I kept putting off studying for, and then taking, the professional engineer's licensing exam. It was something I always wanted to do but never had enough time for.

That all changed when I started telling my friends, coworkers and colleagues that I was going to take it in April.

I started studying in earnest and I look to be in pretty good shape with a month and a half to go.

Will

I have been looking at a slightly different approach, focusing on encouragement rather than accountability. The idea is that positive reinforcement might be more helpful than negative reinforcement, and creating a community of support around your goals might be a way to help you achieve them. Just a slightly different approach. I wonder whether the "feel-good" angle will ultimately be more helpful or less helpful than the "punishment" angle.
The site is http://bleevnme.com

Shen

I was able to quit smoking this way: 1. Had a lung function test that showed small airways disease after 9 pack years even though no symptoms, 2. quit on my birthday, 3. bought an item I coveted but couldn't really afford unless I quit buying cigarettes, promised myself I would sell it if I went back, but quite difficult to sell, 4. told all my friends and relatives to shame me if I went back to smoking, 5. drank lots of water and stayed in the library, 6. kept to the rule no tobacco in the house, 7. assured myself I could go back to smoking at age 65 if I needed to. It was a success 35 years ago and I would be interested to see if there is a more effective way for somebody else. As for "getting in shape," I think there are various goals, but a simple pedometer to upload data to the Internet has been successful for lots of people--you don't have to do 10,000 steps like the Japanese, or 8,500 for a President's medal, or walk 10 km for a Volksmarch badge, just record what you do and gradually find little ways to increase, but keeping the data and sharing it is crucial, the reward or punishment sounds important but might not be. Where are the experiments to verify all this?

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Sarah

I hire a company to cut off my wife's pinky finger if I fail.

(Stephen King already wrote about the ultimate commitment device in "Quitters, Inc." It's in _Night Shift_.)

David

I quit smoking this way. Made a $100 bet with my best friend that I could go a year without a cigarette. Couldn't lie to him, so the first cigarette I smoked that year was going to cost me $200 (net).

Never did see a cigarette worth $200 to smoke it. By the time a year was gone, I had lost the desire to smoke. He happily paid the C-note at the following New Year's Eve party.

doug, ct

great blog, great work you guys do.

consult a doctor about running a marathon and then flying for 12 hours so soon thereafter. why i would ask someone smarter than myself:

a) painful, unless you economists fly first class to all these fancy events (joke)
b) something to do with the amount of oxygen at high altitudes and your hemoglobin?
c) this is probably not an issue because of all the people that run marathons in different countries, but it's worth looking into considering you're not supposed to if you scuba dive (having to do with a different concept, but still enough of a scare tactic to get you to call someone at UofC Med to ask)