Commit Yourself

Self-control in the age of abundance

"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, 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. (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, gives some of your money to a charity or friend that you've chosen. Whether you fail or succeed, 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 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, some of their hard-earned money will go to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Anti-charities apparently are highly motivating; 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 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

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  • Doc S.||

    +1 for the picture!

  • Doc S.||

    I really enjoyed the article, well written and informative. Thanks for sharing this, I will definatley pass along stickK as i could see it helping a lot of my friends and family who have trouble sticking to those goals. I might even use it myself!

  • ||

    Good grief - do the whole quote:

    Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Let me out. Let me out of here. Get me the hell out of here. What's the matter with you people? I was joking! Don't you know a joke when you hear one? HA-HA-HA-HA. Jesus Christ, get me out of here! Open this goddamn door or I'll kick your rotten heads in! Mommy!

    kind of proves that precommittment isn't worth committing to...or sumthin'

  • NomadWright||

    Great article. Inspiring, actually. Surprisingly non-judgmental and pragmatic.

  • Old Mexican||

    Self-control in the age of abundance

    I have and practice the best, fail-safe method of restraint there can be:

    Marginal Utility.

  • Doc S.||

    We all know that the only fail-safe method is abstinence mex. Republicans and the church have been drilling it into our brains for years, and clearly it worked for all our priests.
    Just don't purchase or consume anything and you won't be tempted.


  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Doc S.

    Just don't purchase or consume anything and you won't be tempted.

    I thought that was included in the liturgy of the Church of Soros:

  • Doc S.||

    The only church tha tdoesn't want your money?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Doc S,

    The only church tha tdoesn't want your money?

    That's what makes them suspicious.

  • ||

    Wow, thats kinda scary when you think about it dude.

  • Old Mexican||

    Spam Recipes:

    Country Rice Salad

    1/4 cup olive oil
    10-oz pkg frozen peas, thawed & drained
    9 green onions, sliced 1/4"
    1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
    1 1/2 tsp paprika
    3 1/2-oz pkg sliced pepperoni
    1/2 tsp cumin
    1 red pepper, cut into 1/4" strips
    2 cups rice 1 green pepper, cut into 1/4" strips
    2 (14 1/2-oz) cans chicken broth
    12-oz can SPAM, cut into 2x1/4" strips

    In 3-quart saucepan heat oil over medium heat. Add green onions; cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender. Add paprika and cumin; stir to blend. Add rice, coating grains with oil. Add chicken stock; stir to combine. Cook over low heat until rice is tender and all liquid is absorbed (20 to 30 minutes). Meanwhile, in skillet cook SPAM over medium heat, turning occasionally, until SPAM is heated through (4 to 5 minutes). Add peas and chopped parsley to rice mixture. Stir in remaining ingredients or arrange ingredients on salad. Serve at room temperature. Yield: 6 servings.


  • The Gobbler||

    I have an old friend who still does factory work. he oversees several people on a loading dock. One of his newest direct reports is from Nigeria, just six month's in the USA. My friend tells me the guy is a great worker. He als say the guy eats SPAM right out of the can.

  • ||

    And he's a prince who just needs an honest american bank account to store his funds for a short while. You were referred to him as someone trustworthy, and you can keep a percentage of his fortune for your troubles.

  • ||

    "although his fat-clogged heart is in the right place"

    I love how we have been so deeply indoctrinated that bad dietary advice makes it into stories about virtually everything. Ancient Egyptians were clogging their arteries on a very low fat, high veggie, very active lifestyle more than 1,400 years ago.

  • what DEMOCRACY looks like!||

    Right now, I'm holed up in my room. There's gunshots everywhere," said Shehu Sani, a civil rights leader. "They are firing and killing people on the street."

  • kilroy||

    So how can each of us be our own godfather? The answer is to shuck the naiveté of the untutored in favor of a more sophisticated approach to ourselves and our intentions. That means, first, relying as little as possible on willpower in the face of temptation.

    This is total bullshit. You are responsible for your own actions. Why not work on improving your willpower? Wouldn't you think that would be the better long-term solution since you can't predict all the temptations you might face?

  • ||

    Because improving your willpower doesn't work for 99% of people. It's hard and temporary at best. Besides, it is willpower to guard against future temptation than simply hoping that your "willpower" training will pay off?

    I mean, it's not like you can sit looking at a Donut (or dough naught)for hours on end with electrodes attached to your scrotum in case you try to eat it (the donut, not your scrotum). That doesn't work- I would assume, of course, not having tried it.

  • kilroy||

    Because improving your willpower doesn't work for 99% of people.

    [Citation needed]

    It's hard and temporary at best.

    So it's hard. There's no mysterious force making your arm shovel that donut into your gaping maw. Why is it too hard for someone to rationally and logically think through the action-reaction scenario.

  • ||

    When faced with 2 choices to solve a problem, the most logical choice is the one that takes the least amount of effort and energy, given the same (or similar enough results).

    The 99% figure was for the purpose of illustrative hyperbole. Hower, check out THIS ARTICLE where people with a PHD in their names agree with me.

  • ||

    That's a fine science journal you've linked to, Lou.

  • ||

    It was tops on the google search. I'm not spending my time finding citations for my hyperbole.

  • kilroy||

    given the same (or similar enough results)

    Where did this assertion come from? If there's no consequences, there's no willpower required.

  • ||

    This assertion came as a result of your "why can't they just do this" argument. They could try and do that. Hell, I'll even concede that it might work (which it won't). However, if there's another way to do it that requires less energy/output then THAT is the logical way to go.

    Therefore, why don't they just use willpower? Because there's an easier way to do it, that's why.

  • kilroy||

    Therefore, why don't they just use willpower? Because there's an easier way to do it, that's why.

    Huh? Setting up a whole precommitment scenario that fines you for breaking your calorie limit is "easier" than just not picking up the donut?

  • ||

    Yes it is. Ask a fat person.

  • some guy||

    "Why is it too hard for someone to rationally and logically think through the action-reaction scenario."

    Perhaps most people are not rational or logical. Or at least, their ability to think rationally and logically fades as time scales increase. Or maybe future gains have less value than present gains because there is so much about the future we can't control.

  • kilroy||

    Perhaps most people are not rational or logical.

    I submit to you that the goal is to improve the rationality and logic skills. Improving your ability to make difficult but beneficial choices works best "because there is so much about the future we can't control". If you know you're dying in a fire tomorrow, you need have no willpower at all.

  • Name Nomad||

    This makes me wonder. Most libertarians tend to be more logically oriented than the population at large. Are there also fewer fatty boom booms walking around when you go to a libertarian convention? I can't think of a chunky libertarian off my head besides Drew Carey (though my ignorance does not constitute proof of any kind).

  • ||

    Me. I'm a "chunky" libertarian.

  • Enyap||

    Careys lost alot of weight recently.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Drew Carey lost a lot of weight. He probably hired someone to point a gun at him at all times and shoot him if he tried to eats carbs.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Or he just didn't eat so much.

  • Fatty Bolger||


    So there's your problem.

  • ||

    Yep, only cavemen didn't have donuts. Or any other easily digestible carbohydrates to speak of. Honey was rare and had those nasty bee-things to deal with.

  • ||

    I bet they had pizza though. Evolution tells me to eat pizza all the time... and beer.

  • Brett L||

    What kind of crust?

  • ||

    Variety is the spice of life. Though none of that Japanese pizza. I've had it and don't care to try it again.

  • db||

    Yeah, and the cheese is really runny.

  • Libertarians||

    A high metabolism is actually a genetic weakness as far as most of the history of evolution is concerned.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Joke handle fail.

  • ||

    A high metabolism is actually a genetic weakness as far as most of the history of evolution is concerned.

    Seems to me a low metabolism tends to make you an easier target for those who would make food of you.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Our ancestors didn't have much trouble keeping trim. It was an accomplishment just to keep from starving. Nobody was successful enough to get fat. Those with a low metabolism didn't require as much food to keep from starving as the ones that burn up all those calories quickly.

  • ||

    This is a little silly. Not everyone with self control is in thrall to an outside power. (Although I do read Hit & Run and the article it links to religiously!)

  • Gregory Smith||

    The reason some people are fat has nothing to do with self-control but PRIORITIES. Some people are happy being fat, others have better things to do (Star Trek Conventions?), while the so-called "beautiful people" engage in a diet of steroid abuse, crystal meth, alcoholism, and hard partying in South Beach nightclubs.

    It's all priorities, there is no such thing as "public health" just like there are no "public bodies." America needs to stop obessing with the Abercrombie & Fitch gay dream and start accepting that not everyone is going to achieve the Auschwitz look (unless they are sent to a concentration camp)!

    Besides, Hitler was skinny and he had plenty of health problems. I know, I saw the documentary High Hitler on the History channel.


  • ||


    LOVE the last name. Don't love the post. I'm fat and I know why I'm fat- but not everyone is that way. Your rant on the "beautiful people" is seemingly out of left field and makes no sense.

    In fact, your post doesn't really make senseat all.

  • Gregory Smith||

    Spencer, I've lived in Miami, I wish I had a dime for every time someone in the liberal media used the term "beautiful people."

    Miami is a really depressing place because you're being constantly told that the women are beautiful, that the men are athletic, and then you look at yourself in the mirror and you don't like what you see.

    In Miami, even skinny people feel fat unless they have a six-pack, and even then it's not enough, it's never enough. Our war against "obesity" is driving us crazy!

  • Doc S.||

    All things you can change. If you want a six pack put the hours in the gym and the lifestyle changes necessary to get it. It's not that hard, although I have no idea what your current fitness level is, assuming you arent morbidly obese you could likely have a 6 pack in 6 months if you made the effort.

    But instead you'd rather complain about people that think having a 6 pack is attractive.

  • ||

    I get a six pack at the convenience store. Somtimes bottles, sometimes cans.

  • Gregory Smith||

    Don't bullshit me, I went from 260 to 200 and there was no freaking six-pack. I also know that some skinny people are even using PLASTIC SURGERY to get those six packs. Why? Because mother nature is a motherfucker, and that bitch simply told them "hey freak, you weren't meant to have a six pack."

    See? Mother nature is cruel, that's why I like throwing garbage out of the window, driving SUV's and burning flowers and killing wildlife. Save the planet? Fuck that. I say kill the planet! (last paragraph is sarcastic)

  • Doc S.||

    Thats awesome that you got down to 200. Losing 60 pounds is no simple task and its commendable that you did that. Hopefully you kept it up, I'm sure thats no easy task, and neither is getting a 6 pack for a lot of us, but that doens't mean its impossible.

    Was there a reason that you stopped at 200? I don't know your body type or build so i have no way of knowing if thats a healthy/optimal weight for you, but you likely could have continued going to get a 6 pack if its what you wanted.

    Voluntary plastic surgery in that form really disgusts me (as i've made known before), and likely they didn't do it because they COULDN'T get a 6 pack, but more that they found it easier than working for one.

    It's not an attack on you, I just hate people saying that they can't do something body image wise. If you have a fully functioning set of limbs you can get whatever fitness goals you want. My grandpa used to brag about having a six pack well into his 70's

  • Enyap||

    You lost 60lb and didn't get a 6 pack because you were most likely on a idiotic poorly planned crash diet that had you losing more muscle weight than actual fat.

  • ||

    I'm fat. I used to be obese. Very. I used to think I lacked self-control. Now I don't even believe it exists in any meaningful way.

    I used to think I was obese "because I love food." I still love food, I just don't express it by eating something that jacks up my blood sugar and then leaves me hungry again in 90 minutes.

    I've lost a lot of weight breaking all the "accepted" rules. And I have willpower like a sheep has long, deadly fangs. And I most definitely did not precommit.

  • Doc S.||

    "In fact, your post doesn't really make senseat all."
    Most scientists refer to this as the Gregory Smith condition. It is apparently a condition of epidemic proportions in these parts

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Come on, Greg, you know the rules. You have to leave the "You know who else (fill in the blank)?" comment for the next guy.

  • some guy||

    Who's willing to help me precommit to making a list of the things to which I should precommit?

  • Comment||

    I suggest you engage in a diet of steroid abuse, crystal meth, alcoholism, and hard partying in South Beach nightclubs.

  • ||

    Those are goals, not precommitments. Unless you precommit to attaining your goals.

    Those, btw, are AWESOME goals!

  • LeBron James||

    In that case, I am precommitting to taking my "talents" to South Beach.

    The rest will write itself...

  • Paul||

    What the fuck? That's my facebook picture.

    Please take it down, Reason.

    Besides, I didn't know everyone could see my facebook picture.

  • Paul||

    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.

    I would have felt the same way. I'm sorry I have to take your $15 large, but I'm doing it for your own integrity.

  • IRS||

    "I'm sorry I have to take your $15 large, but I'm doing it for your own integrity."

    That's what I said.

  • ||

    Well, we all know how the "best laid plans" turn out. Personally, I don't think precommitment functions very well at all.


  • Libertarians||

    We're tired of government forcing us to behave in accordance with society's whims. We want the freedom to hire private contractors to force us to behave in accordance with society's whims.

  • Observer||

    If it is voluntary, is there force?

  • Nomic||


  • Fiscal Meth||

    No, I was just kidding.

  • Observer||

    Nice article. I'll pass it along.

  • Alan||

    The bit about mirrors was interesting. I've heard the same thing about a picture of eyes.

    I guess people have known about the eyes thing for years, though.

    Those things are *everywhere* in Turkey.

  • ||

    Hahaha, about 3 years ago, my friend and I did this type of thing to lose weight. Both of us bet about $200 to lose 20 pounds in about 4 months. If either of us lost, we'd have to pay the money. In fact, it worked extremely well..Good to see that Stickk exists...wish i had thought of that idea!

  • Bradford Tuckfield||

    Thought-provoking and morally positive. Interested readers should look into the writing of NYU economist Mario Rizzo, an Austrian school economist who writes persuasively about the dangers of "the new paternalism" and moral dirigisme.

  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi||

    For mundane purpose this system is useful, reduce the weight, saving money extra but how can you use it for writer block.creativity , motive in old age.How can you change nature`s law?

  • synthetic snake oil||

    You're paying for a compliment.

    Institutionalized, such payments are known as "taxes," and the compliment you receive is the pride you take in the fact that, because of folks like yourself, GE doesn't have to pay taxes.

  • ||

    I find the sentiment in this article to be perilously close to the kind of masochistic, group-think punishment and correction that one reads of among cults. Can people really be so utterly incapable of thinking for, or controlling, themselves? It's a depressing prospect. What we should invite and empower, socially and societaly, is not group correction of behavior, but of written expression. Were we to do so, perhaps we would not be exposed to these dreary and ghastly strings of invited commentary; ungrammatical, illogical, bereft of competent orthography or punctuation, reeking of juvenalia, emoticons, acronyms, and bristling with school-girlish exlamation points.

  • ||

    Thanks a lot, now I read this article instead of marking the papers that I was supposed to hand back today!

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

  • MTS Convertisseur||

    Thank you.

  • دردشه عراقية||



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