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. Rob says:

    I’m fairly certain that is a photo of a Tough Mudder event. They sharpie your bib number on your forehead and you can also see the people waiting in line with their orange bibs on. There is also a guy on the side with the tough mudder orange headband on left site.

    Anyway the Air Force much tougher than any Tough Mudder event and this does not appear to be AF training.

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  2. Eric Hamilton says:

    When I flunked out of collage, I joined the USMC because I thought that it would help me by getting me to “run up hills and no more studying”. It almost worked. The USMC in their infinite wisdom decided that I should be in USMC schools for 18 months, go off to the “real” USMC for a year and then to teach Marine Corps recruits basic electronics theory for the last two years of my time there. I didn’t get to run up hills but I did end up with an education that has lasted me for over 40 years now.

    Sometimes trying to get “physical” to solve your problems, just doesn’t work.

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  3. Daniel Reeves says:

    Guys! Tools like StickK and Beeminder can totally solve this problem. You don’t have to enlist in the military!

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  4. Polisatire says:

    It will do none of what you assume. At most, you will have more of a respect for your country and the work it takes to defend it. Leaders are not made, they are born.

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  5. Chris says:

    A commitment device is a perception of reality which forces your current self to accomplish a task regardless of the emotional state. Unfortunately, it does not guarantee behavior change or a replacement of habits. I’m concerned that you have the wrong perception of what the purpose of a commitment device is and whether you will attain it at the airforce. It’s true that you may not be able to perform your bad habit there, but that doesnt mean you will after. Don’t only ask yourself if you could believe it will result to such a change, but if it will result to such a change.

    On the bright side, habits are done on the basis of values and perceptions of rewards, so perhaps you will become a better person on the perception that you would value yourself higher, leading you to desire greater habits.

    All in all, you will most likely feel even stronger about your position about the airforce, because this mixed batch of comments produces a state in which you will feel more polarized towards your decision. On top of this, during your experience, you will be looking for confirmation (i.e. confirmation bias). And since you dont want to have cognitive dissonance, you will only see exaggerate the positive things the airforce is doing this to you. Finally, after its all done, you will have incredible hindsight bias in that you will alter your original conclusion to enter into this. The only way to avoid this one is through a clairvoyance test in which you state what specific habits you want to change. If its ambiguous, you will simply skew it.

    This isn’t meant towards Amber by any means, just towards the idea that commitment device produces behavior change.

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  6. steve says:

    There is a hardware commitment device of interests to people with drug, cigarette, eating addictions. . . you can read more about it and an economics critque at. . .

    Building a commitment device for purchase or any computerized activity could be done with software and applied at personal level and at very modest cost comparatively. A commitment device could be built into our purchase systems on a national level at a very very small cost to GDP.

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