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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.