The Air Force as Commitment Device

The “electric eel” obstacle in training: the yellow wires contained electricity and would shock the person when they touched it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class David Owsianka).

A podcast listener named Amber writes in to say:

I recently listened to your podcast on commitment devices, which finally gave a name to something that I recently had been contemplating and finally contracted myself to.

There is a lot of background to this story that neither would interest you nor better illuminate the value of my commitment device, so I shall skip that and instead tell you that I recently enlisted in the U.S. Air Force with the hope that the training and experience will not only make me into a better person for the benefit of my country and my state, but that it would replace some of my bad habits with more honorable ones.

The ideal outcome of this device is that, by the end of basic training, I would be a more compassionate leader, a more resilient individual, and a more capable collaborator. There is something tremendously beautiful about surrendering to such an extreme situation as basic training.

I hope that at end of my experience I will be able to say that the device triggered the kind of change I desired in my life. Levitt made a great point about commitment devices being a farce. To paraphrase, humans are very resistant to change, even change that is meant for their own well-being. I appreciate that comment because it illuminates the sad state of American ingenuity.

There was a time when I was satisfied being who I was and was unwilling to submit to the pain of transformation. When the momentum began to shift, and I was inspired to change, I wanted to commit to permanent change. I believe that a commitment device acts as an energy source when our momentum begins to decrease.

I have many thoughts on the value and potential of the U.S. Air Force to act as a commitment device in my life. I would continue, but you are both busy men and I don’t want to steal any more of your time.

Amber will report to basic training in April and attending tech school at Wright-Patterson AFB for public health. Good luck to her! As the proud brother of a former Air Force pilot, I can very much attest to the life-changing discipline he gained during his service.


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  1. Blaise Pascal says:

    I, too considered enlisting as a similar commitment device: basic training would break me of my bad eating and exercise habits and instill good habits in their place.

    What finally pushed me over the edge to going to the recruiter, however, was the early ’90s recession and leaving school due to financial reasons.

    Unfortunately by then, my bad eating and exercise habits had made me ineligible to join up.

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  2. Roger says:

    Thought about this too. The only problem I see, is not basic training, but the “commitment” to the Air Force as an institution. I think that would be the hardest to submit to.

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    • Nathadale@What to do in London says:

      Training can be done and can follow easily. But the problem is, after all of this training and task to the airforce trainee is there any values gain in here or just for the sake of is a must, because it is a part constitutional requirements.

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  3. Colin says:

    I have a similar experience to Amber. I am in my fourth semester in law school and I don’t particularly care about practicing law. I drive an hour and a half three nights a week to do this. My only real motive for taking the BAR would be basically “why not?”

    The reason i went was because i wanted better discipline and to write and think better. I also wanted to interact better with others.

    The device itself is twofold. The fear of failure and the amount of debt i would be in for no particular reason if i quit in the middle.

    Like Amber i never quite knew the name for this. It’s worth noting i have no regrets.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    It was 1966, lost in college, grades plummeting, blowing my scholarship, tired of everything….I walked down to the Naval Recruiting office to sign up for he Navy. It was raining.

    It was closed for Kosciuszko Day. Next day I changed my mind.

    But it was probably the best decision I never went through with.

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  5. Guinevere Locke says:

    Kudos to Amber for having the bravery to join our country’s defenses for both altruistic and self-interested reasons!

    As for me personally, I’ve discovered that mental health hospitals make great commitment devices, much more so than jail stays.

    Temporary homelessness is also an interesting commitment device–it really forces you to re-evaluate what’s important in life and become creative in managing to avoid frostbite.

    I was directionless before I decided to create some disruptions in a mostly middle class conservative white school (University of IL at Urbana-Champaign), by both pissing off moderators in academic symposia and by graffiti-ying on buildings. After a long journey of self-experimentation, I found out what I wanted to do with my life, as well as figured out how to not die on the streets of Chicago, DC, and Madison.

    I think that although my stays in mental hospitals were generally painful, they helped me understand how mental illness is viewed in America, what it actually is, and moreover–they helped me recover from the emotional and verbal abuse of a lengthy relationship that had cast me into serious depression before I disrupted my college enough to make them kick me out. That might be too much information, but my point is–the anomie caused by depression was cured by the commitment devices of a.) mental hospital stays b.) temporary homelessness.

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  6. Bodger says:

    Amber, be careful of your selection. As a commitment device Air Force basic training is not much of an incentive. As someone who has been there and done that (20+ years in the USAF) I can say that basic is not much above scout camp in difficulty unless they’ve made really radical changes. The most difficult thing about the experience was Texas Summer and I can honestly say that I came out in worse physical shape than when I went in and uber-cynical about their feeble and all-too-obvious efforts at brainwashing. Good luck.

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    • Amber says:


      I appreciate your input, especially as someone who has experienced life in the Air Force. I know they have made some changes to the AF BMT, but I know that it’s not going to be the same as the Marines, Army, Coast Guard, or Navy. I’ve heard what one of my friends (who is a decorated Marine) went through during his first years and I know that what I will go through is not even comprable.

      As with all commitment devices, the devices is only as valuable as the person connected to it percieves it. I percieve this device as valuable because I want to make a change. I know that the Air Force’s core values of “Integrety first, service before self, and excellence in all we do” are valuable character traits and integrety is something that I find lacking in myself and in others. Ultimately though, any change I want to see in myself will come down to how committed I am to seeing it through.

      I’m not committing to the Air Force to be brain washed. I value my intellegence to much to allow any one person or institution to be mindless. I want to be able to apply integrety, boldness, honor, service, and high performance standards to all areas of my life. This is not something that a drone can do. Integrety is not something a brainwashed individual can do, because integretous people know the difference between truth and lies. They know where the line between right and wrong is, and they chose, knowing the opportunity cost, to do what is right.

      Thank you for your luck and for your advice. I value hearing other people’s input on the military because it helps me keep a centered perspective.


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      • Amber says:

        Also, I’m sorry for my poor grammar in the above message. It’s my own short comming that I fail to proof read my posts.

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  7. BikerDad says:

    “There is something tremendously beautiful about surrendering to such an extreme situation as basic training.”

    Uh, nope. If you want extreme, you really gotta kick it up a few notches from AF Basic. The AF has the EASIEST basic training of all the services. Next would be the Coast Guard, then Navy, then Army, then Marines. Also, this may seem like a fine distinction, but it’s not. Don’t surrender to it, embrace it. Embracing will be transformative as you will come to own the values, whereas if you merely surrender to it, you’ll simply adopt the behaviors for convenience. Once it’s no longer convenient, you’ll drop the behaviors.

    This isn’t to say that AF basic may not be a radical departure from your current lifestyle, but it’s not “extreme”. Good luck with it though, and know that you’ll likely be more challenged in your tech school.

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    • James says:

      Yeah, as a long-ago graduate of Parris Island, I have to agree. Air Force basic will be a snap :-)

      Thinking back, though, I’ve noticed a certain change in attitude with time. Back then, a 3 mile training run was torture. Now it’s what the dogs & I do for fun several afternoons a week.

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  8. Chibinium says:

    The Armed Forces are a bigger commitment device than he thinks. Back in the day, I wanted to be fit and trained in weapons, so that I could defend my homeland’s soil. However, I had little interest in being sent abroad to defend America’s interests…if only because I have misgivings on what qualifies as an interest; upon enlistment, that discretion would no longer be mine to give myself.

    Not even the National Guard promises that anymore. A shame.

    For those with the willingness, but lack the capacity, I wish them luck: may they find what they were looking for.

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