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Credible Commitments and Embarrassment, Or Why I’m Telling You I’m Running the Stockholm Marathon

Yesterday, Ian Ayres blogged about his recent weight loss, and frankly, it’s a pretty impressive achievement. The secret, Ian tells us, is finding a clever way to solve the problem in which today’s best intentions are betrayed by our rather less determined selves tomorrow.

Ian’s solution — committing to fine yourself if you fail — is pretty ingenious. So ingenious, in fact, that he has set up a company to allow you to fine yourself for future transgressions. Ian is a smart guy, so I think there’s a good chance that his company will succeed. But equally, I fear he faces some pretty formidable competition. There is a much cheaper way to commit your future self to some targets, since the fear of failure, public ridicule, and embarrassment can be harnessed (for free!) to help solve our own commitment problems. Let me explain with an example.

I’m going to publicly declare my major fitness goal on this blog, and rely on this blog’s readers to ridicule me if I fail. So, here goes: this summer, I’m going to be visiting the IIES at Stockholm University, and on the last day of my visit, I’m planning on running the Stockholm Marathon. And I hope that you, dear reader, will keep me honest. It would be embarrassing to fail publicly, and I suspect it would be embarrassing enough that today’s public statement of my running goals will keep my future self pretty darn motivated.

Indeed, having now made this commitment, in 94 days time, I’ll look forward to sharing with you some thoughts on whether it helped.

When I think hard about the general issue here, I see many ways in which all of us use similar approaches to solve our commitment problems. Lots of economists sign up to present soon-to-be-written papers at conferences, in the hope that the fear of embarrassment will force them to write the paper sooner. One reason that young assistant profs work hard to gain placement at the best universities is to commit their future selves to keep up with the latest advances in economics (or else risk being shamed by their bright colleagues). Past students of mine have repeatedly told me to be a bit of a bastard in the classroom, as they find the persistent threat of embarrassment (if they are unprepared) to be a useful motivator. I know that when I teach, I begin class by over-promising on what I can deliver in the classroom, in the hope of forcing myself to keep focused.

And so we see that friends teasing each other about potential failures can actually turn out to play a productive role, if harnessed appropriately. In this story, those of us who tease our friends are the heroes, while provides a solution for those people whose friends are too darn polite to give them a hard time.

I asked Ayres about why he thought that his fine-based commitments could compete with my much cheaper embarrassment-based commitments, and he gave an interesting answer:

StickK also makes it easy to implement your embarrassment commitment … instead of (or in addition to) a financial commitment bond, our contracts allow you to designate e-mails of friends and family supporters who receive e-mails about whether you succeed or not. So in just a few minutes, you could create a custom contract to run a marathon and send in the e-mails of people who provide the best commitment mechanism.

The commitment problem is so pervasive, and so important for so many of us, that it is always interesting to hear about the creative solutions that folks develop. So, what approaches do you use to discipline your future self?