Manipulating Yourself for Your Own Good

Standard economic theory implies that we maximize our happiness if we have more choices. Yet we limit our choices — impose self-control mechanisms — voluntarily in order to improve our well-being. For example, I just signed a book contract with a small advance payment.

I don’t need the extra money right now, but having taken the advance payment I know I’ll feel guilty if I don’t finish writing the manuscript by the contract deadline. So while the contract limits my freedom, I’ve chosen to limit my freedom of choice.

For another example: my daughter-in-law asked us to contribute to a fund-raising project. She’s trying to get several families involved
to raise enough money to obtain matching funds. My wife and I would be happy to contribute 2/3 of the total needed; but I’m mentally limiting our contribution to below 1/2, since we shouldn’t be the “majority stockholder” — I want to encourage other members to contribute.

I’m being manipulative, but I’m also manipulating myself and limiting my own choices. This kind of apparently restrictive behavior is everywhere — it’s the way we control urges that we know we shouldn’t indulge.


My college roommate, in fun, used to limit his choices when confronted with a large number of options for, say, what to have to drink. He claimed not to be able to handle choices if presented as "You can have A, B, C, D, or E." He would insist that we present him with a series of one-on-one choices. "You can have A or B." He might respond "B." "OK, B or C?" "B." "B or D?" "D." and so on through the list.

That's not limiting his choices. That's limiting to a manageable number the choices he sees at any one time.

Nick Johnson

This really isn't what came to mind when I saw the headline "Manipulating yourself for your own good".


"I wonder how PDB read this blog and posted that comment sans internet?"

The statement about cancelling his Internet service is consistent with reading and posting this if you consider the existence of public Internet access.


So until now you've never understood why people want candy-free lanes at the Supermarket?


@aml: Choosing to have children is the choice to add a restrictive third party into your life, isn't it? But those who choose it usually draw more pleasure from the existence of their children, then they lost by limiting their choises, or giving up on the privious lifestyle.

I agree with Eva, in the sense that every choice is also "giving up" on the other options. But default is also a choice, and the joy drawn from a choice can be bigger than the joy lost over the loss of the other options.


There have been quite a few studies in recent times on the so-called paralysing effect of choice. (There's one article in particular that I'm thinking of, but I can't find it; in the meantime this one will do: .)

The ironies of the modern world :)


I am guessing here but PDB is a friend of Prof. Hamermesh. It is kind of extreme, but I am also thinking that PDB is Prof. Hamermesh's daughter-in-law?


"I hope for nothing, I fear nothing. I am free." Kazantzakis


I wonder how PDB read this blog and posted that comment sans internet? Self-manipulation or self-delusion? I like the idea in principle though!


I nominate PDB for ironic comment of the year award.


it was Kant who said to be free is to be a slave to reason


I second that nomination!!!


Agreed, SW!!!


"Standard economic theory implies that we maximize our happiness if we have more choices. Yet we limit our choices"

Contrary to what Dr. Hamermesh appears to believe, the notion that "the more choices we have the happier we are" does not conflict with the fact that we sometimes limit our choices.

Our happiness derives from our freedom to choose, and that includes the freedom to VOLUNTARILY limit our choices under many circumstances in manners that we see appropriate.

There is a big difference between voluntarily restricting ones' choices in certain circumstances and having some 3rd party, e.g. the government, restrict one's choices against one's will.

Standard economic theory implies that the second kind of restriction is detrimental to the maximization of happiness, not the first kind.


Funny. I've thought there was research going on suggesting that religous people and parents are more happy than others and my agnostic, fruitless self fancies the idea, that being religous or a parent is very much the defintion of having not much choice at all.

Who knows, maybe Classical Economic Theory is simply on the wrong track here. The implication comes from the highly fatous idea, that we want stuff because the stuff makes us happy. But experience of life tells us, that we want stuff because we assume it makes us happy and forget that this doesn't always work. And some even believe that wanting stuff itself is a bad idea.

So maybe this is true: If you have everything you need, then it might be a good idea to limit all your choices if this ensures that you can keep it. Hence the tendency to incur in debts as soon as you found your place in life. Happiness is a warm bun.


I must be thick or something. By deciding to take the book deal, you are making a choice. This choice includes the consequences you face as a result, which in turn result in choices, i.e. hand in that book or breach your contract. I think all you are doing is provide an incentive to yourself to action what you have decided (= write a book), which again was just your choice! And isn't it just the nature of the choice process that we opt FOR something, thereby excluding other possible paths? To say you are limiting your choice by making choices seems like a bit of a tautology to me.


Actually, limiting choices is highly rational. There are sometimes huge search costs involved if there are tons of choices that are not easily compared. Imagine having to drive to five stores to compare prices and kinds of HDTVs, versus deciding on one store and picking the best deal there. While you may pay a small premium for not price-comparing, you save a tremendous amount of time, effort, and probably gas by limiting your choices. Maximizing utility must take these transaction costs into account: at some point, an additional choice is unlikely to be the best choice, but the cost of checking it out is high. More choices, after a certain amount, are simply not worth it even to the very rational agent.


These are kind of extreme, but I canceled my Internet service and unplugged the cable from the back of my TV because I was wasting too much time with them. Now I spend more time reading, practicing piano, and thinking. I'm far happier.


The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz is a great book about the same principle. It makes some pretty good arguments about why more freedom is not necessarily better.

Muhammad Imad Qureshi

I think you donated less than half instead of 2/3 because you don't want to spend all that money on that donation. The same I think is true for the advance payment you accepted for your next book. You wanted that money. Also accepting money and entering a contract you now have to complete the book according to the time limit specified in the contract. To get the remaining cash you'll probably right the book even earlier.