A few years ago, I developed a habit. If the person sitting next to me on an airplane seemed like they wanted to have a conversation, I’d ask them a bit about themselves — let’s say they worked in civil engineering — and I’d say “Tell me something I don’t know about civil engineering.” The habit became an addiction. I loved learning stuff I didn’t know, and most people loved to talk about their passions, work-related or otherwise.
Soon this addiction fueled a dream: I imagined turning it into some kind of a live game show/talk show. It would be called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” There’d be a host (me), some smart judges, and we’d invite the audience members to come onstage and tell us something we didn’t know. We’d learn a bit, laugh a lot, and take advantage of all the amazing information that’s floating around in the world.
This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of one of our favorites, “Save Me From Myself.” It’s about commitment devices — that is, clever ways to trick yourself, or trap yourself, into doing something that you want to do but for whatever reason (lack of willpower, maybe?) aren’t able to. Happy New Year from all of us at Freakonomics Radio!
Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “100 Ways to Fight Obesity.” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
Steve Levitt runs a consulting firm called The Greatest Good. It is occasionally hired by a philanthropist or foundation to look into societal problems. That’s what happened recently, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation asked The Greatest Good to put together a brainstorming session on childhood obesity. Stephen Dubner moderated the event. In this podcast, you get to be a fly on the wall as a dozen participants explore the biological, behavioral, political and economic angles of obesity. Read More »
From Science World Report:
The participants were told to achieve the goal of losing 4 pounds per month up to a predetermined goal weight. The researchers kept track of their body weight every month for almost one year. The researchers told the participants in the incentive groups that they would receive $20 per month if they achieved the goal. And those who failed to achieve the goal would need to pay $20 each month that gets into the bonus pool. Participants in both incentive groups who finished the study were entitled to win the pool by lottery.
The researchers noticed that 62 percent of the participants in the incentive group achieved the goal, while just 26 percent from the non-incentive group hit the target. The mean weight loss of participants from the incentive group was 9.08 pounds and the mean weight loss for the non incentive group was 2.34 pounds.
“The take-home message is that sustained weight loss can be achieved by financial incentives,” lead author Steven Driver, M.D., an internal medicine resident at Mayo Clinic, said in a press statement. “The financial incentives can improve results, and improve compliance and adherence.”
We’ve noted before that the U.S. decline in smoking (among teens as well as adults) has likely contributed to the rise in obesity. In a new working paper (gated), John Cawley and Stephanie von Hinke Kessler Scholder consider the degree to which smoking is a conscious effort to avoid weight gain:
We provide new evidence on the extent to which the demand for cigarettes is derived from the demand for weight control (i.e. weight loss or avoidance of weight gain). We utilize nationally representative data [the Health Behavior in School-Aged Children (HBSC) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES)] that provide the most direct evidence to date on this question: individuals are directly asked whether they smoke to control their weight. We find that, among teenagers who smoke frequently, 46% of girls and 30% of boys are smoking in part to control their weight. This practice is significantly more common among youths who describe themselves as too fat than those who describe themselves as about the right weight.
The derived demand for cigarettes has important implications for tax policy. Under reasonable assumptions, the demand for cigarettes is less price elastic among those who smoke for weight control. Thus, taxes on cigarettes will result in less behavior change (but more revenue collection and less deadweight loss) among those for whom the demand for cigarettes is a derived demand. Public health efforts to reduce smoking initiation and encourage cessation may wish to design campaigns to alter the derived nature of cigarette demand, especially among adolescent girls.
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 »
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:
Read More »
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.
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 »