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?


Sean Murphy

I have been investigating a new service that allows you to share goals, and progress against them, with your friends. So it's not quite public failure, but it would be failure with folks whose opinion you value, who would encourage you to succeed, and with whom you could celebrate your success. It's called http://www.goaltribe.com/ and it's still in beta.

Jason Rockman

Justin,
Congrats on declaring your desire to get in shape. The comments made by Charles above are dead right. Lots of folks decide that training for a marathon will change their life for the better. Unfortunately many people never make it to the starting line due to over training. Talk to everyone and anyone that you know who runs and frequently competes to find out what they do to stay healthy. It's not just about running. Its about eating right. Its about resting right. Its about modifying your current lifestyle.

Enjoy the journey.

http://solorunner.blogspot.com/

Matt

There is a problem with setting a goal whose fulfillment depends on a one-time event. What if you get a training-related injury that forces you to withdraw? Does that count as success or failure?

The committment devices described here are logical - but a one-time event like the Stockholm Marathon seems to create a gray area where you can say "Oops, I hurt my knee, my doctor said I can't run it". If this were on StickK, would the penalty be assessed?

To avoid this problem, say "I will run a marathon in 2008" rather than "I will run a specific marathon a specific date".

Good post overall, but this particular issue came to my mind as I experienced a hip injury during training for a recent race.

Justin Wolfers

I probably should have mentioned that I have been training for about six months now, so I don't think there is any risk to my health here. Indeed, my brother Lachlan is flying over to Stockholm and he will run the race with me. But continuing to run longer distances through the last three months of my training (and indeed, through four hours of running a marathon) will be a real challenge, and I think my embarrassment-based commitment device will help keep me going on a few of the long and lonely miles ahead.

Max

As someone who never ran more than 3 miles before my first marathon, I can attest to having friends giggle when I announced my intention to run one. However I can honestly say after running 4 fulls and 2 halves, it is a wonderful and rewarding experience. Running that much makes losing weight almost inevitable. Two unsolicited pieces of advice for you though. One, get PROPERLY fit running shoes by someone trained to fit you, ideally a phyiscal therapist. That alone can help prevent a lot of injuries. Two, find a good training program for beginners. I would recommend Jeff Galloway and his take on the "run/walk" method. Made a HUGE difference for me. Good luck!

Daniel

I have found ridcule a weak way to motivate myself to achieve goals. I have found finding a friend who I can talk about the accomplishment, really gets me going. I schedule a weekly chat, and we just chat about our goals. I have had to create a very unusual life considering my background, and ignoring social ridcule is what got me where I am. When I hear ridcule, my defenses go up, I get angry, and I ussually end up getting rid of the friendship/relationship quickly.

Alice

As a poor graduate student, the fact that I have shelled out the ridiculous entry fee in advance is what motivates me. It is the financial loss I would feel if I did not perform up to my expectations on race day which motivates me to train consistently for the race. I do share my goals with a few, and they remind me of them from time to time. So I guess both incentives get me going.

bibi

I was a social smoker and had problems quitting because after a couple of months I would be at parties and feel a very strong urge to smoke, and I would ask a cigarette from someone there who would be smoking. Then I decided to tell these people that I had not smoked a single cigarrette in a very long time etc. I felt that asking them for a cigarette after having said that would totally make a fool of myself: it kept me from asking and so from smoking. I did this at social events for at least a year; I haven't smoked a cigarette for about six years now.

I think it has to do with the things we are most sensitive about; I hate to seem stupid so I had to threat myself with being seen as stupid.

Daniel Reeders

Doesn't it normally go the other way around -- I'll eat cake today and lose weight tomorrow?