Save Me From Myself (Ep. 60)

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(Photo: davidd)

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.)

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.

To understand how a commitment device works, Steve Levitt proposes that you imagine two versions of yourself: the current you and the future you. As Levitt explains:

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.

And so we make a deal to punish (or reward) ourselves if the future self doesn’t follow through on the current self’s promise. What could possibly go wrong?

The episode begins with a story about a journalist named Tony Balandran who decided his gambling habit had gotten out of control. He signed up for a state-run “self-exclusion list” – essentially a self-imposed ban from casinos. If he ever came back, he could be arrested and charged with criminal trespass. What better deterrent could there be?

Next we talk to Adam Scott, a 35-year-old Ottawan who, having recently become a father, decided he had too many bad habits. So he decided to go a month without everything that he deemed unhealthy, from drinking alcohol to watching TV to eating crackerjacks. (This was not Scott’s first brush with self-experimentation — he once tried subsisting only on monkey chow.) If he failed, he would force himself to send a $750 check to someone whom he really, really didn’t want to give his money to: Oprah Winfrey. Scott also documented his progress on a series of YouTube videos.

Along the way, Levitt offers two of his own novel (i.e., disgusting) commitment devices for weight loss:

LEVITT: If you’ve ever had really bad canker sores, or kind of cut your gums, it’s so unpleasant. 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. 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.

Shockingly, Levitt hasn’t yet found anyone willing to follow his diet advice.

The episode concludes with a fascinating conversation with Anna Aizer, an economist at Brown. She and her husband Pedro Dal Bó co-wrote a paper about the commitment devices meant to cut down on domestic violence. Granted, these are different than most of the self-directed commitment devices mentioned above. In this case, two widespread policies — mandatory arrest and mandatory prosecution (a.k.a. a “no-drop policy”) — remove from the victim the responsibility to pursue punishment of the abuser. Aizer raised an interesting point about the inherent complications of even the best-intended commitment device:

AIZER: 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 that is the self that should be preferenced, right? 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.

You’ll also hear Aizer talk about the most surprising effect of “no-drop policies,” and how little we actually know about domestic violence.

*Marx: “I do not care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”


It is the same as incentivizing your exercise or going to the gym like Thank God I love exercising and going to the gym. I could not imagine myself paying for missing my gym commitment. BUT it really does pushes you to fulfill your commitment.

robyn goldstein

I can see your point- one self, two sides. And the problem of how to get around it? AS far as I can see, this is perhaps a universal problem of resolving inner conflict. My advice, get organized (which is what I am doing) to the point when and where, the choice is limited to do or die? Publish or Perish. AS in 5 chapters, 5 piles of good and bad material to re-organize. Last (the hardest) is first. Technically, then I am done-- except for training purposes (to which I personally am committed. I know someone presently struggling with a similar problem. Did she mess things up this week. My advice (to her and to myself) was- take responsibility and don't make another decision til you know what you are doing. So as to avoid having to go back (as she is now) and say-- sorry, but.....


While not particularly a podcast about domestic assault I would like to point out three things that should have been mentioned.

1: There is a large difference between a commitment device that affects you and punishes you for your poor decisions and an commitment device that punishes others with little to no impact on yourself. In the DV situation the victim isn't being punished for their failure to commit, another person is.

2: Aizer hits on a key point near the end on whether we should choose to believe the present reporter or future reporter but I would strongly suggest you not believe anybody under emotional duress. I'm not saying DV is a good here but I do question her bringing up the time honored "what about the children" argument. I would suggest (both to the children and society) you might be causing larger issues putting the sole income earner in jail and as a result causing them to lose their job and future employment in their professional field. DV isn't a simply case of tit for tat and I think, once everybody calms down, the future reporter should be the person who makes these decisions.

3: She also fails to report the amount of bias in this system. I have personal experience on this one where I (as the reporter) was arrested (as I'm a male so of course can't be a DV victim) as I live in a mandatory arrest location on report. This of course cascaded into a mandatory TRO, mandatory prosecution (this location also has mandatory prosecution), and had I lost (I didn't) mandatory minimum sentence which would have cost me my job and future employment (I work in a professional field where an assault record of any sort prohibits future employment). All said and done the system to protect DV victims cost my daughter her entire college fund (as I had to pay for a defense), caused a divorce (and my daughter now lives on welfare as my ex-wife is unskilled and unable to find a work outside minimum wage .. no you can't get custody with a DV even if you beat it), and caused me to be less likely to ever report a future DV. I'm sure glad this mandatory system worked.



Just looking for clarification, you were the reporter....your wife abused you, and you were prosecuted? Or you abused your wife?


There was a case here in New Zealand where a gambler put himself on a no-entry list and despite this went to a casino and won substantially. The casino tried to withhold his winnings but the gambler won in court.

Gabby Solano

I particularly enjoyed all of these strange ways to kick bad habits...especially the idea of getting arrested for doing something you love to do. There is no doubt that Levitt's approaches to weight- loss are completely gross..but oh so true...

Francis O'Donovan

I liked this episode, but I have to comment on the fact that the discussion of domestic violence perpetuates two untruths:
1) Women can only be the victim, never the perpetrator, of violence
2) Men can only be the perpetrator, never the victim.
You never once referred to a victim of violence as 'he'.
And when you stated that the number of men murdered by their significant others went down, the unspoken assumption was that every single man murdered was abusing the woman and murder was her method of escape, and that there was not a single man whose death was the culmination of violence against him.
Of course, the number of male victims is small, but it is not non-existent, and ignoring the male victims makes their abuse even harder for them to deal with.

John Flemming

I was quite dismayed by the last segment of this podcast, in which both the Brown professor and the podcast host (very sorry, cannot remember which one) repeatedly and solely referred to the victim of domestic violence as "she" and "her" and the perpetrator as "he" and "him".

This sort of negative stereotyping does absolutely nothing to weaken the perception that women are always the ones who have a wrong committed against them and that men are always the ones committing it. It also does nothing to assist men in accepting and realising that it is okay for them to admit they are victims, too, should they ever find themselves in this situation.

It would have been very nice to hear some sort of acknowledgement that (a) domestic violence does occur in same-sex relationships, and (b) domestic violence is perpetrated by women and is inflicted on men.

Frankly, I would have expected better.



I FULLY support an an end to or a switch of subsidies away from, lets call it what it was called again, pig slop.

The USDA and the FDA are NOT your friends.

They are the BIG producer's friends.

That's why when there's a cracked waste pipe in a facility in the midwest somewhere people all over this country are scared to eat lettuce or something else.

The focus on factory farming and feed-stocking above all else is directly due to the subsidies on corn.

These subsidies insure that we can't avoid the stuff in the grocery aisle.

Now there were historical reasons why Richard M. Nixon and Earl F. Butz felt that it was necessary to reform the agrarian system in a way that worked, as opposed to Stalin's way* which didn't, but now that the USSR doesn't even exist anymore, surely, its time to end these irrational subsidies.

I'm sure that the world would not really end if we stopped raising our food animals in the equivalent of high-tech hospital wards. (Imagine chickens and turkeys that actually get some walking done on those drumsticks. [Imagine fish that actually get some swimming done instead of going forever left around the tank.])

I'm sure that the world would not really end if we stopped shooting up our food animals full of antibiotics that end up raising bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics like MRSA.

I'm sure that the world would not really end if we stopped making high-fructose corn syrup and using it every [expletive deleted] thing. (It tastes disgusting, way too sweet and wrecks the taste of everything else.)

I'm sure that the world would not really end if we stopped converting what has become a food crop into ethanol to feed our gas tanks.

*) Stalin killed 25 million Ukrainian kulaks through starvation or just plain shooting them. The US is rapidly approaching this number through muffin-tops** who are digging their graves with their teeth***.

**) Muffin tops are the name giver to the way Americans hang over their belt lines.

***) There are LOTS of things wrong with nutrition in America but obesity has been directly attributed to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and cancer.



Interesting the guy's commitment device was a check to Oprah Winfrey. I think in a way this was an escape hatch from the beginning. Why would Oprah cash a $750 check from a stranger? She's a billionaire, she's not going to cash it. If he had written it out to her angel network, it would be a more legitimate commitment. I don't think he consciously picked an non-viable candidate for donation, but he did. Picking a despised charity would be a better choice. I heard of one lady who quit smoking after pledging to give the KKK $5000 if she ever smoked again. It worked.


How is a commitment device any different from incentives/disincentives that make it easier for an individual to choose a course of action in the present that will influence future outcomes in a desired way.


Also, in the Han Xin example there is no choice of an alternate course of action, and hence the commitment device works as a lock. When devising commitment devices for ourselves, we are likely to factor in an escape strategy as well, as opposed to when the same is designed for us by someone else.


My boss created a commitment device for me: a piece of scotch tape over the headphone hole in my computer's speaker. How effective is it? I peeled off the scotch tape and listened to this podcast on my lunch hour. (Yes, he forbids even that. It may be my time, but it's his machine.)

Jon Ledbury

saying 'thank you': I think Levitt is right - in the blogosphere audiences are more valuable than presenters. Everyone is out there, wittering away, looking for some attention, trying to find someone who will let them influence them! Webmasters should pay me to register on their site.


This was a very frustrating show to listen to. After explaining the futility of education alone to change behavior (and Lusardi's a fool to think that's all that's needed), Dubner spend 30 second publicly brainstorming about using non-rational techniques to change financial behaviors! You desperately need a follow-up program on this topic to find out if anyone has created a program that incorporates rational and non-rational components towards this end. You should ask Lusardi and the prof. from Brown to collaborate on creating such a program; the challenge would be good for both.


Sorry, I posted this about the wrong podcast.


My wife and I participate in a commitment device that I thought would.have been an interesting addition if handled carefully. In this case the device is an actual device, a chastity device that she holds the key to. There is a rather large chaste community and a wide range of modern chastity belts to choose from. I know this isn't Savage Love, but as I was listening I kept thinking about our situation. Sure there is a little link and roleplay involved, but basically it's one party helping the other control a habbit he (usually he) can't control himself.

Jeff Schnur

Love your show, really, but in this particular podcast I was surprised by Mr. Levitt's somewhat cavalier comments about commitment devices, in which he seemed to conclude -- with no evidence offered -- that they don't work because an individual's "future self" will usually do what he/she wants, notwithstanding any commitment made by their "past self." As a lifelong champion procrastinator (I'm 55), I joined StickK about last summer, mostly out of curiosity, but without any expectation of sustained success. Now six months later, my house is painted, my electrical outlets are working, my gutters are clean, my household clutter is gone, my taxes are done early, and my finances are in order. And now that spring is coming, I look forward to finally landscaping my yard. (My neighbors will be thrilled.) And, BTW, my newfound commitment has enhanced my marriage in no small measure.

While the anecdotes from your podcast are entertaining, I would welcome credible research on the subject (besides the very specific and somewhat off-point case of the "no drop policy" for domestic violence).


Rodger Banister

This episode inspired me to create my own 'Verboten List' of habitual things like TV, Beer, Coffee, Pizza, Potatoes, etc. and avoid them for one month. My commitment device? As a lifelong Denver Broncos fan there is nothing more odious to me than the thought of helping out the Oakland Raiders. So I wrote a cheque for $750 to the Raiders.

Levitt may think that commitment devices don't work, but let me tell you. There's no way I'm going to let that cheque get sent to Oakland.

Day 5 and counting.....


My friend and I are just about done using a monthlong commitment device. Both of us are college students and could afford to lose some weight, so we decided to use a commitment device that uses pain avoidance (I'm sure that Levitt would be proud). We had a weigh-in at the end of January and agreed that whoever lost the most weight would get to slap the other person one time for every extra pound lost. Every time I thought about sneaking a slice of pizza, I would think about how much it would hurt to get in the face on March 1st. So far, I've lost 11 pounds! Whether or not I win the bet tomorrow, I'm looking for another friend to try it with for the month of March.