Save Me From Myself (Ep. 60)
Our latest podcast is called “Save Me From Myself,” and it’s about the use of commitment devices. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
This is a topic we’ve addressed quite a bit over the years, including in a Times column. (Weirdly enough, the Wikipedia entry on commitment devices leads with our definition. I don’t know whether to feel proud or, a la Groucho Marx*, even more nervous about Wikipedia. FWIW, Wikipedia has gotten so, so much better than when I lodged this complaint years ago.)
A commitment device is essentially a clever means to help you commit to a course of action that you know will be hard. For an individual, this might mean losing weight, quitting smoking, or anything else involving willpower.
To understand how a commitment device works, Steve Levitt proposes that you imagine two versions of yourself: the current you and the future you. As Levitt explains:
Sometimes it’s the case that people know that their future version of themselves will want to follow a behavior that their current version of themselves is not comfortable with.
And so we make a deal to punish (or reward) ourselves if the future self doesn’t follow through on the current self’s promise. What could possibly go wrong?
The episode begins with a story about a journalist named Tony Balandran who decided his gambling habit had gotten out of control. He signed up for a state-run “self-exclusion list” – essentially a self-imposed ban from casinos. If he ever came back, he could be arrested and charged with criminal trespass. What better deterrent could there be?
Next we talk to Adam Scott, a 35-year-old Ottawan who, having recently become a father, decided he had too many bad habits. So he decided to go a month without everything that he deemed unhealthy, from drinking alcohol to watching TV to eating crackerjacks. (This was not Scott’s first brush with self-experimentation — he once tried subsisting only on monkey chow.) If he failed, he would force himself to send a $750 check to someone whom he really, really didn’t want to give his money to: Oprah Winfrey. Scott also documented his progress on a series of YouTube videos.
Along the way, Levitt offers two of his own novel (i.e., disgusting) commitment devices for weight loss:
LEVITT: If you’ve ever had really bad canker sores, or kind of cut your gums, it’s so unpleasant. So why not just slice up your gums a little bit, you know, cut up your mouth so you just don’t feel like eating at all? I think that would be a great diet approach. But people say, “No, no, no too violent, I couldn’t cut myself.” One thing I know would work is just take a little can, like say a baby food jar, and fill it with vomit. And wear it around your neck. And every time you decide that you’re hungry just open the jar and take a little sniff. And I guarantee you you will lose weight, guaranteed.
Shockingly, Levitt hasn’t yet found anyone willing to follow his diet advice.
The episode concludes with a fascinating conversation with Anna Aizer, an economist at Brown. She and her husband Pedro Dal Bó co-wrote a paper about the commitment devices meant to cut down on domestic violence. Granted, these are different than most of the self-directed commitment devices mentioned above. In this case, two widespread policies — mandatory arrest and mandatory prosecution (a.k.a. a “no-drop policy”) — remove from the victim the responsibility to pursue punishment of the abuser. Aizer raised an interesting point about the inherent complications of even the best-intended commitment device:
AIZER: What we’re essentially doing is we’re preferencing one state of being over another. We’re saying with this policy that we believe that the woman, right when she is attacked and reports her abuser, that that is the self that should be preferenced, right? That we are going to follow that woman’s preferences and not the second woman who shows up a couple weeks or a couple months later and decides she no longer wants to prosecute and actually wants to return to him. So, you might argue, who are we to preference that woman’s self as opposed to her other self, if we can call it that? And you would be right.
You’ll also hear Aizer talk about the most surprising effect of “no-drop policies,” and how little we actually know about domestic violence.
*Marx: “I do not care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”