"Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature," Gene Wilder grandly declares to his assistants in Young Frankenstein as he commands them to lock him in a room with his monster. "And I am going to convince him that he is loved even at the cost of my own life. No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open this door."
Think about that for a minute. Dr. Frankenstein goes into the room telling his aides to ignore what he's going to say once he's inside. He knows he will want to come out, so he enlists others to help him subordinate his own later wishes to the ones he has right now, which he apparently prefers.
There's a name for this sort of thing. In the quietly sizzling field of self-control studies, it's called precommitment, because it involves acting now against the strength of some later desires, either by taking certain options off the table or by making them prohibitively costly.
Precommitment doesn't just happen in movies. 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, the Internet's precommitment superstore. Karlan's venture enables any of us to contractually control our own actions or, if we violate the agreement, face a penalty we've chosen. Theoretically, it could make a Trollope of the most recalcitrant writer, allowing him to impose on himself the wanted law that cannot be disobeyed. Despite its nerdy origins, the site has a rakish motto: "Put a contract out on yourself!"
The concept is fiendishly simple. StickK.com (the second K is from the legal abbreviation for contract, although baseball fans will detect a more discouraging connotation) lets you enter into one of several ready-made binding agreements to lose weight, quit smoking, or exercise regularly, among other things. You can also create your own agreement, which many of the site's 100,000 registered users have done. You specify the terms (say, a loss of one pound per week for 20 weeks), put up some money, and provide the name of a referee if you want one to verify your results. Whenever you fail, stickK.com gives some of your money to a charity or friend that you've chosen. Whether you fail or succeed, stickK.com never keeps your money for itself aside from a transaction fee.
If you want a sharper incentive, you can even pick an individual enemy or an organization that stickK.com calls "an anti-charity." Democrats, for instance, might find it especially motivating to know that if they fail to live up to a binding personal commitment on stickK.com, some of their hard-earned money will go to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Anti-charities apparently are highly motivating; stickK.com says they have an 80 percent reported success rate. "All stickK is doing," Karlan told me, "is raising the price of bad behavior—or lowering the cost of good behavior."
What's especially appealing about ventures like stickK.com is not just that they give us the tools to constrain ourselves but that they are voluntary. We are fortunate to live in a time when the biggest problem that many of us face is coping with our own appetites in the face of freedom and affluence. Inevitably our failures—bankruptcy, obesity—bring calls for government to protect us from ourselves. But there are ways we can protect ourselves from ourselves without trampling the rights of others.
Consider exercise. It's good for you, and people want to be healthy and attractive. So lots of us join gyms—and then don't use them, which is why the places get a lot less crowded after January, when the New Year's resolutions start to peter out. The membership fee is just the cost of our good intentions. The real expense is the time and effort required to work out.
Enter Gym-Pact, a clever Boston venture cooked up by a couple of recent Harvard grads. Gym-Pact gives participants a cut-rate membership. The catch is, you have to specify in advance how many times a week you'll show up and how much extra you'll pay for each missed day. In effect, Gym-Pact helps reallocate the cost of exercise to idleness.
Precommitment can be especially helpful when it comes to bad habits, including substance abuse. In the movie Tropic Thunder, one of the characters is a heroin addict who runs out of his drug while making a movie in the jungle. When a jungle drug-making operation is discovered, he gets one of his colleagues to tie him to a tree so he won't succumb to temptation. Soon enough, of course, he is pleading to be untied, just as Gene Wilder was pleading for his helpers to open the door.
Sound familiar? It should. History's first known episode of precommitment occurs in The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his men are sailing home from the Trojan War. He 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.
The Odyssey is all about the management of desire, and the famous wiliness of its hero is on full display in this episode. Odysseus essentially invents precommitment to inoculate himself against his own predictable (and potentially fatal) future desires. A lesser man might have relied on willpower alone, but Odysseus knew that no one is immune to temptation.
Precommitment and the Poor