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.
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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.
A new working paper by Felipe Kast, Stephan Meier, Dina Pomeranz combines two of our favorite topics, both explored in recent podcasts: our inability to save money and the efficacy of commitment devices. The paper is called “Under-Savers Anonymous: Evidence on Self-Help Groups and Peer Pressure as a Savings Commitment Device” (abstract; PDF), and it reports a remarkable near-doubling of savings among those who submit to peer pressure:
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We test the effectiveness of self-help peer groups as a commitment device for precautionary savings, through two randomized field experiments among 2,687 microentrepreneurs in Chile. The first experiment finds that self-help peer groups are a powerful tool to increase savings (the number of deposits grows 3.5-fold and the average savings balance almost doubles). Conversely, a substantially higher interest rate has no effect on most participants.
Season 3, Episode 1
Sometimes we have a hard time committing ourselves – whether it’s quitting a bad habit or following through on a worthy goal. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we share stories about “commitment devices.” They’re a clever way to force yourself to do something that you know will be hard. Host Stephen Dubner talks to a struggling gambler who signs himself up for a program that bans him from state casinos – only to return, win a jackpot, and have it confiscated. We’ll also hear from a new father trying to shed bad habits. So he makes a list of things he wants to change and vows to pay a penalty if he can’t shape up in 30 days. The penalty? He’d write a $750 check to someone he really dislikes: Oprah Winfrey. Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt offers a few of his own off-the-wall commitment devices, and the Brown economist Anna Aizer talks about using commitment devices to fight domestic violence. Read More »
In a recent podcast called “Save Me From Myself,” which is about the use of commitment devices, we discussed one such measure that’s intended to protect victims of domestic violence. It featured an interview with Brown economist Anna Aizer, co-author of this paper on the topic. A listener named Jay Turley wrote in:
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This episode was very interesting, as usual. But the whole “domestic violence” section really irritated me.
As a male victim of domestic violence from a woman, I found it surprising that people such as yourselves completely bought into and promoted the now-disproved tenet that domestic violence equals male-on-female violence.
Our recent podcast about commitment devices, called “Save Me From Myself,” continues to elicit responses from readers sharing their own experience. The other day, Amber told us about joining the Air Force as a commitment device.
Here’s another pair of stories. The first is from Philip Veysey, who lives in Madrid. He is looking for some advice:
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I listened with interest to your podcast about commitment devices and I thought I would share my own which I devised as a way to curb my unnecessary clothes shopping. I found that I was buying simply more clothing that I needed and although this wasn’t causing me any major problems, I realized that it was really wasteful and I decided to think of incentives to make me stop.
A podcast listener named Amber writes in to say:
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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.
A commitment device is a sort of mind trick to help you accomplish a goal that you don’t quite have the willpower to achieve on your own. Sometimes we need a contract with ourselves, or a little financial stake for motivation. This goal can be exercising, studying, quitting smoking, or anything really.
So we want to ask: have you tried one? What was it? And, most important, how did it turn out? Read More »
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 below.)
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. Read More »