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.

"Under-Savers Anonymous": Using Peer Pressure to Save More Money

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:

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.

A Hidden Side of Domestic Violence

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:

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.

More Commitment Devices From Our Readers

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:

Hi guys,
 
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.

The Air Force as Commitment Device

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.

Freakonomics Poll: Have You Tried a Commitment Device?

Our latest podcast, “Save Me From Myself,” is about the use of commitment devices. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes or get the RSS feed.)

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?

What Makes Chuck Skinny?

Weight Watchers has ads in heavy rotation with Charles Barkley saying: “lose weight like a man.” 

You can also hear him mention his success in his Saturday Night Live monologue.

Something is working. Since starting WW, he’s lost 38 pounds. But what about the Weight Watchers program that has him shedding so much weight?

Is it the group weigh-ins?

Is it the famous Weight Watchers point system? 

Or is it something else?

Nudging People to Exercise

Ian Ayres has long advocated the use of commitment contracts in achieving dieting and weight loss goals. Alan M Garber and Jeremy D Goldhaber-Fieber write about their research on commitment contracts and exercise.

If at First You Don't Succeed …

Last fall, I saw my recidivist coauthor, Barry Nalebuff, and was struck by how much weight he'd lost. He had a clearly different body shape. I told him he looked great. Barry turned to my spouse (and coauthor) Jennifer Brown and said, "I'm doing it on my own, so I don't have to use that [expletive] stickK.com."

What I Learned While Running the New York Marathon

When I stated on this blog that I was hoping to run the NY marathon in under four hours, I was hoping that my public commitment would spur me on. And it did. Sort of. I ran under four hours - 3:54:59 to be precise - which I'm thrilled by. So score one for Ian Ayres and the value of public commitments.