Intelligent Design Mind

Psychology as if the mind is real: Precommitment contracts show promise as behaviour change tool

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File:John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens (1891).jpgFew things in that area show much promise, but this one does.

Two economists have spent some time studying precommitment, the idea of freely choosing what’s right and ten instructing others not to listen when you say you have changed your mind. The first well-known precommiter was Homer’s Odysseus (1000  BCE), who

has been warned about the Sirens, whose seductive song leads sailors to destruction, but he wants to hear it anyway. So he gives his men earplugs and orders that they tie him to the mast, ignoring all subsequent pleas for release until they are safely past the danger.

– Daniel Akst, “Commit Yourself: Self-control in the age of abundance” Reason , May 2011

As Akst tell it,

For years the economists Dean Karlan and John Romalis kept their weight down by means of a clever pact. Karlan and Romalis knew a little something about incentives, so they struck a deal: Each would have to lose 38 pounds in six months or forfeit half his annual income to the other. If both failed, the one who lost less would forfeit a quarter of his income. They lost the weight and generally kept it off, although, at one point, Romalis’s weight popped back up over the limit and Karlan actually collected $15,000 from his friend. He felt he had no choice. He felt he had to take the money to maintain the credibility of their system, without which they’d both get fat.

Precommitment works, which is why Karlan, now a professor at Yale, set out to make it available to the world via StickK.com

You set the goals, you have a referee; if you lose, you pay the referee whatever the forfeit is.

The authors found that precommitment schemes were very helpful in reducing poverty. An important factor in poverty is the sense that nothing one does will make much difference anyway. So the limited money available is spent on feeling better, not on doing better.

On the topic of incentives and poverty, see also “Human nature vs. the experts.”

One Reply to “Psychology as if the mind is real: Precommitment contracts show promise as behaviour change tool

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    You set the goals, you have a referee; if you lose, you pay the referee whatever the forfeit is.
    How do I become a referee?

    Do I have to set a goal to become a referee, and if I fail, pay the forfeit?

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