What Can We Learn From Congress and African Farmers About Losing Weight?

I have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which I call for some respect for Congress’s fiscal cliff idea. Congress, back in 2011, couldn’t agree on a budget, so it came up with a way to force the hand of its future self.  This idea of forcing one’s own future behavior dates back in our culture at least to Odysseus, who had his crew tie him to the ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be tempted by the sirens; and Cortes, who burned his ships to show his army that there would be no going back. 

Economists call this method of pushing your future self into some behavior a “commitment device.” [Related: a Freakonomics podcast on the topic is called "Save Me From Myself."] From my WSJ op-ed:

Most of us don’t have crews and soldiers at our disposal, but many people still find ways to influence their future selves. Some compulsive shoppers will freeze their credit cards in blocks of ice to make sure they can’t get at them too readily when tempted. Some who are particularly prone to the siren song of their pillows in the morning place their alarm clock far from their bed, on the other side of the room, forcing their future self out of bed to shut it off. When MIT graduate student Guri Nanda developed an alarm clock, Clocky, that rolls off a night stand and hides when it goes off, the market beat a path to her door.

My colleagues and I at Innovations for Poverty Action look for ways to help the poor around the world improve their financial conditions, and have been exploring the science of commitment devices.

In the Philippines, we partnered with a bank to offer a commitment savings account – a savings account customers could make deposits into but not withdrawals until a stated time or savings goal was reached. We found they helped customers save 81% more than a control group.  Even better, when we offered accounts to smokers, tweaking it so getting their money back required passing a urine test for nicotine, those who used it were roughly 50% more likely to successfully stopped smoking 6 months and a year later.

IPA researchers have also looked into using commitment devices for African farmers who generally have money after the harvest season, but not still a few months later during the planting season, when investments in better seeds and fertilizer would improve their crop yield.

  • In Kenya, researchers tried allowing farmers to commit to buying fertilizer in advance.  Farmers paid for it when they had the cash handy during the harvest season, but it was delivered during the next planting season.  Changing to the advance commitment model was as effective for encouraging fertilizer use as a 50% subsidy in fertilizer prices.
  • In Malawi, allowing farmers to direct some of their harvest profits into commitment savings accounts, which held the money until the following planting season, increased investment back into crops and boosted the value of the resulting harvest significantly.

I think Congress deserves some credit – think about the way an individual lawmaker’s incentives are aligned. It’s easy for an individual politician to get nailed for voting for something unpopular, but hard to assign credit/blame for diffuse long-term macroeconomic phenomena like unemployment.  Granted Congress hasn’t solved the budget problem, but taking the step of setting up their own commitment device to force themselves into at least some action is noteworthy.

People in the U.S. have used websites where they commit money to a cause if they fail to achieve their exercise or other goals for years, in fact I co-founded such a website with fellow Freakonomics blogger Ian Ayres, but there are plenty of ways to come up with your own commitment devices. So when you’re looking at that treadmill, think of the Filipino smokers, the African farmers, or if you absolutely have to — Congress, and figure out what kind of commitment would motivate you to get up there.

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COMMENTS: 8


  1. Jake says:

    Here is another resource for committing money to goals. They don’t give the money to a charity, but it may be more motivational to have some anonymous source take money from you.

    https://www.beeminder.com/

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    • Brian says:

      So let me get this straight, beeminder takes 5 bucks if I don’t do what I say I was going to do? And people sign up for this?

      How about just going to your nearest charity or best friend and do the same thing? At least then your cash is going to a worthy cause.

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      • Jake says:

        If you are committed to your goal, it shouldn’t matter where the money will go.

        I’m just wondering if people feel more motivated when the stakes are higher because their money is going to an “unworthy” cause. For example, what if you used stickK to sponsor a special interest group that opposed your political viewpoints? Wouldn’t that be another way to increase your bid and possibly your results?

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  2. Seminymous Coward says:

    This is a wonderful rationalization of Congress’ motives. It’s a happy coincidence that Congress’ preferred means of inaction can eventually force action, but I still firmly believe their real motivations are job preservation, tribal allegiance to party, and political cowardice. You did do a nice job of picking out a silver lining, though.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
  3. Leo says:

    Recently I’ve started using Gympact (http://www.gym-pact.com/) as a very similar commitment device specifically for the gym. If you don’t make your X # of visits that week (as confirmed by a check in of at least 30 minutes on your GPS enabled smartphone), it will charge you however much money you bet on it. If you do make your pact, it will give you a share of the $$ from everyone who didn’t make it.

    Simple, yet seems to be effective so far.

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  4. Steve S. says:

    I love the idea of commitment devices, as they promote a desired outcome. What does this say about a person’s character? Since character is usually demonstrated or validated by the choices we make, if we are forcibly removing certain options are we avoiding the conflicts that potentially make us more virtuous people?

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  5. Jon says:

    Commitment devices are really interesting and can be very effective. However, couldn’t it also induce bad behaviors as well? For example, Leo mentions gym-pact, which basically rewards you for going to the gym with money. It doesn’t reward you for time spent at the gym or how much weight you lose, so I bet you guys can think of a few ways to cheat the system! The problem is that these extrinsic rewards obfuscate the intrinsic reward of the experience. It is obvious that our political system is broken, because politicians are not doing what is best for the economy, they are doing what is best for their specific constituents to ensure job preservation.

    Shouldn’t we mold the system so that the intrinsic rewards shine through? Solutions could be longer terms, shorter election seasons, etc…

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