commitment strategies

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“If I didn’t achieve what I wanted to, a very large contribution would automatically come out of my credit card and go to a charity that I very much didn’t support,” Orszag says of his training strategy. “So that was a very strong motivation, as I was running through mile 15 or 16 or whatever it was, to remind myself that I really didn’t want to give the satisfaction to that charity for the contribution.”

He declines to name the charity.

Orzag on NPR. Hat tip: Economix, which also digs up a new favorite for our growing collection of alarm clocks. This one doesn’t turn off unless you feed it coins.

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Courtesy of Felipe Insunza, an economics student at São Paulo University in Brazil.

To be admitted to any Brazilian university, especially one of high quality, students must pass a difficult exam that covers all the subjects taught in high school. The test covers basic subjects like math, Portuguese, biology, chemistry, physics, English, history, and geography. But, there are also very specific themes like botany, zoology, genetic, Mesopotamian history, analytic geometry, and stoichiometry, that students have to understand in order to do well on the exam. The competition for admission is intense – 20 to 30 candidates for every vacancy. Three factors largely determine your score. Do you have a good memory? Do you have strong study habits? Are you able to control your emotions?

After a one year of study, I won a spot in the Economics graduation, reaching the first collocation among more than 2,000 competitors. Along the way, I developed a self-punishment nudge to help me study more consistently.

For each subject, I had to study I had a little notebook. There were 25 subjects. There were 5 classes each day. For each subject, I carried a notebook with me to school. When I came home I had to study the themes taught in all of my classes. I also had the notebooks for subjects that did not have a class that day. Each afternoon, I studied yesterday’s subjects and today’s. If I did not study a subject, I hauled that notebook to school the next day in my backpack – even if I did not have class.

Whenever I had a backache, I said to myself, “You have to study more.” I knew I would be tempted to procrastinate. People think it’s better to study today, but we tend to think that will be easier to do that tomorrow, so we postpone, and then regret. I think that with this nudge, I created a short run trade-off between pain and laziness. If you want to sleep all day long your spine will be upset with you the next day.

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A commitment strategy to avoid gambling away your winnings from the non-fiction dad’s five part review of Nudge.

The last day of the cruise I couldn’t get the losses out of my head and was sure that if I sat down again I could get my money back.  This time my Dad came along to watch.  I sat down with $50 this time just in case I caught a cold streak before the winning was to begin.  Well sure enough the first few hands didn’t start off all that well, and I was down to $20.  Then finally the dealer busted and I won a hand.  This was followed by a tap on the shoulder.  My Dad told me to give him the chip that I had just won so I wouldn’t be tempted to bet with it.  Then I won the next hand, followed by another chip in my Dad’s pocket.  Then again, same routine.  I started to think that there was something to this, as after the fourth win in a row there had to be some kind of karmic energy involved with “being responsible” with your winnings.  I believe I won something like the next five out of seven hands and ended up even for the whole trip, all thanks to my Dad playing the role of the blackjack jiminy cricket.

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As told to a software programmer:

(Seinfeld) said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Shakeout says this story is an example of loss aversion in that “the benefit of writing another joke seems small, but as you build up the chain you give yourself something to lose.” Loss aversion doesn’t seem like the appropriate behavioral economic lesson to apply to Seinfeld’s story.

An alternative might be research on differences in decision making when facing isolated options versus sequences. The frame of a sequence typically enables individuals to make more farsighted decisions, which is exactly what happened in Seinfeld’s case. In much of this research – the best of it done by George Loewenstein – individuals typically postpone objectively “better” outcomes until the end of a sequence (like French food versus McDonalds). Though in the Seinfeld story, the sequence itself seems to differentiate the value of initially identical products (a self-produced joke).

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This fitness trainer has come up with a creative commitment strategy to help him stay healthy.

But there’s one tool that helps me stick to my diet, and that is social support and public accountability. I use a free web site called twitter, where I tell the world what I had for every meal.

And since I’m an expert that folks look to for help, I have an incentive not to cheat. You can follow me and my meals and workouts here:

Click here to follow Craig’s diet and workouts

Hat tip: Andrew Schulman

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From Yale psychologist Paul Bloom:

As I write this article, I’m using a program that disables my network connections for a selected amount of time and does not allow me to switch them back on, thereby forcing me to actually write instead of checking my e-mail or reading blogs. A harsher (and more expensive) method, advised by the author of a self-help book, is to remove your Internet cable and FedEx it to yourself—guaranteeing a day without online distractions.

Even pigeons can craft commitment strategies.

Ainslie conducted an experiment in which he placed pigeons in front of a glowing red key. If they pecked it immediately, they got a small reward right away, but if they waited until the key went dark, they got a larger one. They almost always went for the quick reward—really, it’s hard for a pigeon to restrain itself. But there was a wrinkle: the key glowed green for several seconds before turning red. Pecking the key while it was green would prevent it from turning red and providing the option of the small, quick reward. Some of the pigeons learned to use the green key to help themselves hold out for the big reward, just as a person might put temptation out of reach.

Read the rest of the article, “First Person Plural,” here.


Don’t check your 401(k) portfolio on a week like the last one, especially if you’re young. Take a tip from this guy.

Scott Jaffa, a 25-year-old systems administrator in Silver Spring, Md., called yesterday’s plunge “as much a test of my psychology as anything else.” Because he does not need the money “for another 30 to 40 years,” he asked rhetorically, “why should I worry myself about its performance over a period of days or weeks or even months?”

Mr. Jaffa is already developing what the ancient Stoics and the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called ataraxia, or imperturbability. But he knows that ataraxia does not come naturally; it takes work. A year and a half ago, Mr. Jaffa destroyed the online access code for his 401(k) so he could no longer have instant access to his retirement accounts. His goal was to make it “significantly harder” and to require “human interaction” before he could trade on his own emotions. That enabled him to watch Monday’s decline without acting on it.

From the Wall Street Journal.

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So far, we’ve found the alarm clock that jumps off your bed, and the alarm clock that donates to the charity or political party you hate most. Then there’s this plain old digital clock specifically designed for people who are constantly running late. (It’s a bit old, but it just popped up on our radar.)

It’s guaranteed to be up to 15 minutes fast. However, it also speeds up and slows down in an unpredictable manner so you can’t be sure how fast it really is. Furthermore, the clock is guaranteed to not be slow, assuming your computer clock is sync’d with NTP many computers running Windows and Mac OS X with persistent Internet connections already are.

So why go through all this trouble to make a clock that’s sometimes fast and sometimes not? FEAR, UNCERTAINTY and DOUBT, my friends! If you use this clock to keep appointments and deadlines, and you really care about being on time, you have to assume that the clock might actually be telling the correct time though it’s likely to actually be up to 15 minutes fast.

You can download the clock to your computer at David Seah’s site.

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From David Hagmann:

I found that when it came time to schedule a doctor’s appointment, I’d continuously delay making the call. I’d promise myself to call right after lunch, then in just another hour and before I knew it, the day was over. Fortunately, I’m not the only one with that problem, so here’s the commitment technique I’m using: I made an agreement to share with a friend when I need an appointment, and he shares this with me. Then we just schedule the appointments for each other.

Since I’m not experiencing the uncomfortable doctor’s visit I’m scheduling, I don’t have the urge to try and delay it. With Google Calendar it’s easy to know the other person’s schedule and find a time that works for him. For some reason, making the phone call for an appointment is a bigger barrier to action than sending an e-mail… maybe there’s a lesson in it for doctor’s out there.

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The Ethicist takes on a relationship conundrum in which the boyfriend has proposed a solution. He says that his girlfriend’s “jealously marred the early years of our long relationship but gradually abated.” But after a recent outburst of jealous rage, the boyfriend suggested deterring future incidents by putting $1,000 in escrow, which would be forfeited if the girlfriend made another accusation.

The Ethicists’ response? It’s unethical, and if the boyfriend is going to punish her for making false accusations, he should also reward her for true ones.

As to those merits, well, it’s tough to see any amid all the flaws. Here’s one: a loving relationship is not a business relationship. Another: contract law is not the best mechanism for regulating the tender yearnings of the heart. And this: a lover’s feelings, even rage, ought not be so crudely suppressed. Quite the contrary, intimate partners should be free to reveal themselves, to be known and understood. An angry outburst may not be the ideal way to do this, but it is preferable to enforced silence. If you are to cultivate a close connection to another person, you should not promote a plan that discourages her from confiding her feelings or from disclosing herself.

Then there is the matter of symmetry. If you penalize your girlfriend for a false accusation, shouldn’t you reward her for a true one? To do that, you must deposit a similar sum that she would receive if her accusation proved true. Sauce for the goose — the gander, the usual.

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