Tony BALANDRAN: Well, it was in late August of ’09. I went to a Harrah’s Casino and played pai gow. And I was doing fairly well. I couldn’t believe the luck I was having.
That’s Tony Balandran. This was on one of those riverboat casinos in Kansas City, Missouri. Balandran is a journalist in his late forties.
BALANDRAN: The big hand that I was dealt was a seven-card straight flush.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Wow.
BALANDRAN: And a seven-card straight flush is pretty amazing, pretty rare. Of course it had a joker involved so there was a wild card there. And I believe that was 750-to-1 on the odds. So my $5 bet on it netted me, I think, 37.50.
DUBNER: And what happens then, did you keep playing for a few hours or were you jazzed? Did you decide I’m going to cash out? How’d it work?
BALANDRAN: No, they spread the cards out for the camera of course. They did a card count.
BALANDRAN: And the supervisor congratulated me and asked for my ID because this was going to be a big payout, a significant payout. And I just thought, wow, here it goes.
Here’s the thing: that beautiful hand Balandran was dealt — that 750-to-1 straight-flush hand — it actually turned out to be bad luck. You see, Tony Balandran wasn’t supposed to be gambling in that casino. Or any other casino in the state of Missouri. It all began when he realized that his gambling had gotten out of control …
BALANDRAN: Sometimes after work and on the weekends when the casinos did not close, there were a couple of times when I stayed there until I had to go to work the next day.
DUBNER: Wow. And at what point did you say to yourself, “Tony, this is not good, and I need to do something?”
BALANDRAN: Well, when I was borrowing money from friends and I wasn’t completely honest with them about why I needed the money. And I knew I was in a pattern of living paycheck-to-paycheck despite, you know, a decent income. You know, when I was trying to figure out how many dollars I had to get my next meal, I thought this is not good, and I got to stop.
Balandran knew he did not have the will to stop himself. So he decided to do something drastic. Missouri, like many states with casinos, offers what’s called a “self-exclusion” plan. You sign yourself up for a registry that effectively bans you, for life, from all casinos in the state. If you ever do come back, you can be arrested for trespassing. It’s like signing a contract with yourself, against yourself. For a while, it worked. Balandran stayed out of the casinos. Until he started going back. He discovered a loophole. He found he didn’t have to show his I.D. to get into the casino, or even to play the table games. In fact, he wouldn’t have to show his I.D. at all unless he won a certain amount of money — at which point the IRS would have to be notified. And that brings us back to Tony Balandran’s seven-card straight flush.
BALANDRAN: I just kept a smile on my face thinking, I don’t know, maybe I’m going to be lucky in another way. Maybe the computer glitch occurred, or maybe somebody accidentally erased records from six years ago. But all the time I thought, they’re taking too long.
DUBNER: And then what?
BALANDRAN: I believe it was highway patrol, I believe that’s the state agency, the gaming entity, they tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to step away from the table and to gather my chips and come with them. And they didn’t need to explain why. And I followed them.
DUBNER: And is at least a little bit of you thinking, Holy cow, why did I do this? I did this to myself! I signed up so that the casino —.
BALANDRAN: Yeah, I was beating myself up.
DUBNER: I mean, no offense, I don’t blame you. Because, I mean, as bets go, this was a bad bet. You could only lose — there was no way you could win once you signed that ban.
BALANDRAN: Well, if I’d won several more four-of-a-kind hands, I could probably win under the radar. But what I’m really doing is hoping I don’t win big. And you’re right, the logic doesn’t follow. Was it dumb? Yes. And I even kind of joked about it with the officer. I said, a seven-card straight flush, come on, at least give me some compliment for that while you write that citation.
Balandran was charged with criminal trespass, paid a small fine, and — worst of all — he had to surrender his $3,750 jackpot. So the casino got to keep the money he lost and the money he won. Which makes a “self-exclusion” ban seem like a pretty good deal, at least from the casino’s end.
DUBNER: And so if you had it to do all over again, if you could rewind back those years ago, would you sign up again?
BALANDRAN: Well, that’s tough question. If everything was going to be repeated, in hindsight, I would not want to go through all that again. I know I had to get away from those casinos for a while. So in the time that it kept me away I think that was worth the ban, worth putting my name on that list.
DUBNER: If there were a national casino ban registry, a national, self-imposed casino ban registry, would you sign up for it?
BALANDRAN: Ha. No.
* * *
So economists have a name for the self-imposed ban that Tony Balandran signed up for: it’s called a commitment device. To understand how a commitment device works — if it does work — you have to picture two versions of yourself. The current you and the future you.
Steve LEVITT: Sometimes it’s the case that people know that their future version of themselves will want to follow a behavior that their current version of themselves is not comfortable with.
That’s Steve Levitt, he’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author.
LEVITT: So I’m on a diet and I would like to stick to that diet. But I know that when someone puts a chocolate cake in front of me I will lose my willpower and I will eat that chocolate cake. A commitment device is an attempt on the part of a person to set up constraints so that the future self isn’t able
to take advantage of the situation and do what the future self wants, but instead requires the future self to behave in a way that the current self would like the future self to behave.
You remember how Odysseus had himself lashed to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t succumb to the sweet song of the Sirens? That is a commitment device. You ever bought an expensive gym membership to force yourself to get in shape? That’s a commitment device. For some people, marriage is a commitment device. Now, in the last few years, commitment-device websites have been popping up, like Stickk.com — that’s S-T-I-C-K-K — and Aherk! — that’s A-H-E-R-K, and they let you set up a contract to help you quit smoking or finally write that novel, any kind of goal you can imagine. If you fail, there’s a penalty to be paid. You may have to donate money to an organization that you hate, or you might have to post an embarrassing picture of yourself to Facebook. Steve Levitt, being Steve Levitt, has some singular ideas about commitment devices.
LEVITT: So bariatric surgery is one of the ultimate examples of a commitment device. It’s a case where you know you can’t control how much you eat so you actually have surgeons go in and, you know, put rings, or cut your stomach out so that you just don’t want to in the future eat at all, which has always struck me as a really, really extreme solution to not being able to lose weight. I think I have at least two far superior ways of losing weight that I haven’t been able to convince anyone else to go with. Now, the one that’s maybe more civilized is if you’ve ever had really bad canker sores or kind of cut your gums, it’s so unpleasant to eat. So why not just slice up your gums a little bit, you know, cut up your mouth so you just don’t feel like eating at all. I think that would be a great diet approach. But people say, no, no, no, too violent, I couldn’t cut myself. One thing I know would work is just take a little can, like say a baby food jar and fill it with vomit. OK? And wear it around your neck. And every time you decide that you’re hungry just open the jar and take a little sniff. And I guarantee you you will lose weight, guaranteed.
DUBNER: And we can’t figure out why people don’t like economists. I don’t understand. Such a pleasant idea.
LEVITT: But how is that worse than bariatric surgery? Wouldn’t you rather sniff vomit once in a while than risk death going under the knife to have someone cut open your body and make it so you’ll never be able to reverse it?
DUBNER: Yeah, but it’s a one-time thing, as unpleasant as it is for the one time, as risky as it is for the one time, you figure, “If I get through it then I’m done,” as opposed to just walking around with a baby food jar of vomit on a string my whole life? I mean,,come on.
LEVITT: Think about what a great conversation starter that would be.
DUBNER: With what kind of people? Who are you trying to start a conversation with?
LEVITT: Ladies at ladies’ night at the bars.
Okay, so maybe Levitt’s methods aren’t for everybody. Or anybody. But let’s say you do want to change your life in some way, large or small. Maybe you find yourself questioning the choices you make. Maybe you’re looking for answers to life’s big, big questions …
ADAM Scott: I was talking to my cousin Jimmy, who asked the question that really kind of summed up the whole thing. He said, “Is life without steak and porn worth living?”
That’s Adam Scott. He works in telecom policy for the Canadian government in Ottawa. He’s 35 years old. He and his wife had their first kid a year ago. His perspective on life has shifted …
ADAM: I’ve always been a weak-willed person, but now I’m becoming a weak-willed fat old person. So I’ve definitely had my health on my mind lately. Recognizing I’ve only got so many years, so many hours left to live. Am I spending them in a valuable way?
So he took his cousin Jimmy’s question kind of seriously: what if he did give up steak and pornography — and, while he’s at it, all the other habits he considered unhealthy?
ADAM: I’ll give you the full list: it’s hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, onion rings, chicken wings …
Adam decided to go cold turkey, for 30 days. He committed himself to a life of health and virtue. His Cold Turkey List ended up with 42 items.
ADAM: …soda pop, illegal drugs, which I don’t really do anyway ….
I remember, when I was a kid, how hard it was to give up one thing for Lent — like ketchup. I loved ketchup! How do you live without ketchup for the entire Lenten season? And here’s Adam Scott trying to give up not one thing he loves, but 42!
ADAM: These are things that I have been doing habitually, you know, foods that I’ve been eating for the last 20 years, television that I’ve been watching every night for the last two or three years, and I’ve never really made a conscious decision about them. I’ve never sat down and assessed the value of watching “TMZ” every night. It just kind of crept into my life and now it’s there. So I don’t necessarily want to give it all up, but I do want to evaluate it and see if I think my life is better with beer and entertainment television in it, I’ll be drinking in front of the TV on day 31.
Adam knew how hard this was going to be. And he knew that he was going to need some sort of commitment device.
ADAM: So what I came up with is, I’ve written a $750 check made out to Oprah Winfrey, who my wife adores and who I — despise might be too strong a word, but who I’m not a big fan of.
HEATHER Scott: Yeah, it’s true, I do love Oprah. I think she’s great, I think she does great things.
That’s Heather, Adam’s wife.
HEATHER: I couldn’t see anything bad coming out of her having more money. I’m sure it would go to something charitable and good. But Adam didn’t see it that way.
ADAM: I’m convinced she’ll spend it to advance her evil empire one way or another. My hope would be that she’d spend it on herself. A new pair of shoes. Or I mean, something she had in abundance already.
Adam needed one more thing: a referee. So he gave the $750 check to his friend Scooby.
ADAM: And if he gets any credible evidence that I’ve broken my contract, he has instructions to mail that check immediately to Oprah Winfrey.
There was one last layer of the commitment. Adam decided to post a series of videos on YouTube, called the “Cold Turkey Diaries,” in order to make public his progress.
ADAM: Hi, my name is Adam Scott, and this is the Cold Turkey diaries.
We talked to him on Day 5.
ADAM: The commitment contract is really working. The combination of guilt and fear of getting caught really has been effective so far.
But by Day 10, the novelty seemed to be wearing off:
ADAM: Like yesterday, when I got home from work after a really stressful day, I was tired, kind of annoyed, fed up with my job. It would have been a great day to sit down, crack a cold beer, open a bag of pretzels and sit in front of the TV for half an hour, just to decompress a little bit. I don’t get to do that anymore.
But Adam presses onward. He certainly didn’t make it easy on himself, giving up so much, all at once. He has to get going in the mornings without the benefit of caffeine. He has to avoid TV even in other people’s homes. At poker nights with his buddies, he drinks Gatorade while they’re all pounding beer and chips. But Adam Scott, hearty Canadian that he is, doesn’t quit and he doesn’t cheat. But then, on Day 21 …
ADAM: There was a slip-up.
Adam and Heather had gone to a diner for breakfast.
ADAM: … which I knew was risky at the time.
He ordered a decaf coffee, which is not on the Cold Turkey List. Heather also ordered a coffee.
HEATHER: And there were two coffees on the table and one was black and one was sort of creamy looking and I hadn’t put anything in my coffee and I was like, well that’s kind of strange that that one’s kind of creamy looking, maybe there’s something wrong with it, I don’t know. And I turned to Adam and I said, “What’s in the coffee?”
ADAM: I didn’t know what she was talking about, and then she just yelled, “milk!”
Milk. Not allowed. Adam had only put a couple little containers of 2% milk in his coffee and had a few sips. It was, as he would later insist, a total accident. But it didn’t matter. After three weeks of perfect compliance, he had broken his commitment.
HEATHER: Oh, it was an immediate freakout. It was like, such a blow. The wind was just completely knocked out of our sails, like, damn.
ADAM: So I was really wondering, is this what I’m going to go down on? Something so stupid?
Adam knew what he had to do. He contacted Scooby.
SCOOBY: Yeah, so he texted me, and I think my first instinct was, who puts milk in their coffee, first of all? That’s just sick. So I thought about it, and said, ok, well, I said if it was half and half, yes. I’ll let 2% slide, don’t let it happen again.
So Adam keeps going, and, he makes it — all the way to Day 30 with no further slip-ups. No sleepwalking into the pantry for a bag of chips. No plopping himself down in front of the TV. He had committed himself to a Cold Turkey regimen and, as hard as it was, as unlikely as success may have seemed, he made it! But when we talked to him, on Day 30, he didn’t sound so happy …
ADAM: I’m kind of feeling guilty about those two little sips of milk. Right, it’s like the record book is always going to have the asterisk beside it. It’s a bit of a let-down, to be honest.
So he comes up with a workaround. Call it a two-percent solution.
ADAM: So maybe the best thing to do is just read you the letter I’ve written. It starts off: Dear Oprah, attached you’ll find a check for $750. Please allow me to explain. One month ago…
He mails the check to Oprah Winfrey. And his letter explains his whole project, what happened with the milk, how Scooby forgave him but how Adam couldn’t forgive himself … and then, he just leaves it up to her.
ADAM: I throw myself on the mercy of the Oprah and ask only that you adjudicate this matter fairly. Tonight I will sleep guilt-free.
I’ll be honest with you: I think Adam Scott was way, way too rough on himself. Forty-two banned items and one slip up in 30 days? I mean, c’mon! But I also find myself thinking: Look how much effort he expended — look how much angst he put himself through — simply to get himself to do the things he already wanted to do. That’s why some people aren’t such big fans of the commitment device.
LEVITT: I really think commitment devices are kind of a farce.
That’s Steve Levitt again. He tried a commitment device on himself once.
LEVITT: It was actually in Thomas Schelling’s undergraduate class in economics at Harvard. So, Thomas Schelling was one of the greatest economists of all time, he won the Nobel Prize, he was a wonderful lecturer.
Schelling was also one of the first scholars to study what we now call the commitment device.
LEVITT: But I had this problem, which is, it was a nine a.m. class. As soon as I was settled into a seat I would immediately go to sleep. And I really wanted to see these lectures, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. And so I had this brilliant idea. Now this was an economic class on strategic thinking. And what better way of using strategic thinking than to use the commitment device of putting myself in the very front row in the very middle seat? How could I possibly fall asleep if Thomas Schelling was looking right at me as he delivered a lecture? And unfortunately, it couldn’t have been more than two minutes into class when I found myself dozing off already. And I couldn’t keep my eyes open the entire lecture. And I decided, well, that commitment device didn’t work, I’m going to sit in the back of the class. At least it’s not half as embarrassing. The problem with commitment devices is that as clever as your current self is at trying to devise ways to keep your future self from getting around it, the future self just desperately wants whatever it’s being denied and it finds ways to get around it. I mean, while people pretend to want commitment devices, I think deep down, real people don’t really want them.
All right, so personal commitment devices are imperfect, to say the very least. But what if we raise the stakes a bit? What if a commitment device could be applied to help fight, say, domestic violence?
Anna AIZER: There are essentially two commitment devices available to women who are the victims of domestic violence. And one of them is essentially to kill him.
That’s coming up, on Freakonomics Radio.
* * *
So commitment devices don’t always work — in part because your future self rebels against your current self, and in part because the devices may simply not be powerful enough. And there’s another problem: sometimes you just change your mind.
AIZER: So, you know, for the most part, economists believe people are rational and they can make the best decisions for themselves.
That’s Anna Aizer. She’s an economist at Brown University.
AIZER: So economists for the most part don’t like to tie people’s hands, but there can be circumstances when you might actually think it would be improving.
Aizer studies commitment devices in an unusual context …
AIZER: Which is the context of domestic violence. And the reason why this, we believe, is sort of a nice context for studying this is that in domestic violence, what you witness is a large degree of cyclicality, a large degree of women leaving abusive relationships and returning multiple times.
If you think domestic violence isn’t a big problem, you are wrong. In the course of a lifetime, an estimated one in four women is beaten or raped by an intimate partner.
AIZER: In the U.S., every day, roughly 14,000 women are the victims of domestic violence, and four are killed by their intimate partners.
One big problem is that many domestic-violence victims don’t report their abuser to the police. And there’s another problem: a woman who does call the police might end up dropping the case — her boyfriend or husband might sweet-talk her out of it, or maybe threaten her. Back in the 1980s, a vast majority of domestic-abuse cases were dropped before final judgment. So across the country, lawmakers tried to come up with solutions to these problems. One was a mandatory-arrest policy, which meant that the police were required to arrest a suspect even if the victim has already changed her mind by the time the police showed up. Another, similar solution, is called the “no-drop policy.”
AIZER: And this policy states that once a case has been presented for prosecution, a woman can choose not to follow through, but the prosecution will continue anyway. And I should say I believe that the justification for that, was prosecutors believed that women were being threatened by their abusers to drop the charges. And so once they remove that from her power, they felt that they were actually making her safer in that sense.
DUBNER: So, if a woman reports her partner for having abused her and then decides in the light of day or in the dark of night to change her mind and not proceed, the prosecutor has the legal authority to continue without her help.
AIZER: Without her cooperation, that’s correct.
DUBNER: So both of these solutions that you’re talking about, both of those are commitment devices then, yes? They’re both bells that cannot be unrung.
AIZER: That’s correct.
Most big American cities now have these mandatory-prosecution policies. Aizer and her co-author Pedro Dal Bó — who happens to be her husband — wanted to know what kind of effect these policies had on domestic violence. They began by looking at the data from California. During the 1990s, the seven biggest cities in California adopted the policies at different times — which made for a nice “natural experiment” to help study cause and effect.
AIZER: So we could essentially look at a county before and after it adopted one of these policies, and look to see what happened to both arrests for domestic violence and calls reporting domestic violence. And what we found was an increase in both on the order of about 14 to 20 percent. So after these policies were adopted it seemed to be that there was an increase in reporting of domestic violence.
DUBNER: And what was your response to that, as an economist? Did you say, you know, this means that the policy makers got it right and that they came up with a kind of rejiggered incentive that produced some good pro-social change? Or —.
AIZER: Essentially, yes. You know, this was very much consistent with women demanding or wanting a way to commit themselves to prosecution.
So that sounds good, but let me play devil’s advocate. You could imagine that in some circumstances, a commitment device like this might backfire — that is, some women might be more reluctant to call the police knowing they won’t be able to change their mind later. And men, now that the stakes are higher for them, might have greater incentive to force women to not call the police. And how about this: Aizer tells us that domestic-violence calls and arrests rose as a result of these new laws, but what about domestic violence itself? Do more arrests necessarily mean that less violence is happening?
AIZER: That’s less clear. So, that’s hard to look at also. So you can’t get survey data on this at that kind of level, at the level we’re looking at, this very local level. What we could do is look at hospitalizations for assault among women over this period, and we did not see that they declined significantly. So, you know, I won’t sort of hang my hat on that.
DUBNER: So you’re saying that the law works well, that the commitment device works really well in that it gets more people to report, but you can’t really say that it works well in lowering the actual, you know, symptom that it was trying to address in the first place, right?
AIZER: Right, the data’s just not there to allow us to answer that question well.
DUBNER: So you could say well, that’s good that this law’s been arrived at, this commitment device that works. On the other hand, we can’t really prove that it produces anything more than kind of legal and prosecutorial activity.
AIZER: So, if we sort of take this sort of fundamental principle of economics that you look at people, if you want to know what people want, what people like, you look at what they do, and not what they say. So the fact that you see an increase in reporting suggests that this is actually a policy that they prefer.
Aizer did find some convincing data — of a slightly different sort — when she went beyond California and looked at the national figures.
AIZER: So what we did find, and I have to admit, that we tried as hard as we could to make these results go away, but we couldn’t. What we found was that we saw a significant decline in intimate partner homicide with men as the victim.
Did you catch that? What Aizer’s saying is that after these domestic-violence policies were adopted, fewer women murdered their husbands and boyfriends. Now granted, that’s not a very big category of murder in the first place. But still, how do you explain that?
AIZER: Well, there are essentially two commitment devices available to women who are the victims of domestic violence. And one of them is what we call the extreme device, which is essentially to kill him. Once she kills him there is no way to return.
DUBNER: That is a commitment device, isn’t it?
AIZER: That is a commitment device. And the second is the one offered by this policy, which is obviously a considerably cheaper device.
DUBNER: It makes it seem so much less draconian compared to murder now.
AIZER: Doesn’t it though?
DUBNER: Because if you were just to offer the one choice of, you know, if you are going to report your partner as abusing you then it is a bell that cannot be unrung, that might sound very stiff. On the other hand, if you consider that the other option is that if you don’t report you may end up killing him, that’s a much more costly commitment device to the woman to say nothing to the man.
AIZER: That is correct.
DUBNER: As an economist who looks at the way people make decisions for themselves how does that sit with you I guess philosophically? Do you like the idea of a commitment device that helps that much?
AIZER: Yes and no. I mean what we’re essentially doing is we’re preferencing one state of being over another. We’re saying with this policy that we believe that the woman, right when she is attacked and reports her abuser, that we are going to follow that woman’s preferences and not the second woman who shows up a couple weeks or a couple months later and decides she no longer wants to prosecute and actually wants to return to him. So, you might argue, who are we to preference that woman’s self as opposed to her other self if we can call it that? And you would be right. I think the way to look at it is to say, A) is there any collateral damage? Are there externalities? And the answer to that is yes. There are children who bear the costs of these decisions and that the policy maker should consider the welfare of those children as well. And the second part of the response is well, let’s see what women do. Let’s see whether they in fact increase their reporting. And if they do that, would suggest that they have a preference for this as well and that the policy choice was correct.
DUBNER: Ah ha, OK, that makes perfect sense, except let me ask you that necessitates women knowing that these policies do exist, right?
AIZER: That’s correct.
DUBNER: So, is that the case?
AIZER: Well, you know, there’s no study. There’s no, I can’t give you numbers. As far as I know, nobody has actually studied this. What do women actually know about the rules and policies? The only thing I can say is typically these policies are accompanied by an increase in resources in both the prosecutor’s office and the police department for cases of domestic violence.
All right — so, while the evidence is hardly overwhelming, and there are all kinds of data we don’t have, it does seem that these commitment devices that are meant to help the victims and potential victims of domestic violence have had some benefits. What’s interesting, to me at least, is that with these commitment devices, it’s somebody else who’s doing the committing for you. Now, maybe that’s how it’s got to be. Self-imposed commitment devices, as we’ve seen, are rather imperfect. Tony Balandran signed himself up for a gambling ban — and he couldn’t keep himself out of the casino, and then got busted when he won a huge jackpot. He lost by winning! Adam Scott, meanwhile, he won by losing. That is, he deemed his Cold Turkey experience a failure because of those few wayward sips of coffee with the milk in it. But in the end, the Cold Turkey thing really worked out for Adam. He lost eight and a half pounds during that month. He may, of course, be out the $750 that he mailed to Oprah Winfrey …
ADAM: So I picture my check, you know, traveling through the mail, landing in Oprah headquarters, she opens it, sees the $750, and decides that she can go shoe shopping.
Oprah WINFREY: Stop the car! Stop the car! I see a shoe in the window!
But to date, the check remains uncashed.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC, APM American Public Media and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Katherine Wells. Our staff includes Suzie Lechtenberg, Diana Huynh, Bourree Lam and Chris Bannon. Our intern is Jacob Bastian. Our engineer is David Herman. Collin Campbell is our executive producer. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can subscribe to our free podcast on iTunes or go to Freakonomics-dot-com where you’ll find lots of radio, a blog, the books and more.