Keeping Promises to ourselves

Today's talk is about "commitment devices" or tools used when we have a cool head to keep us from making stupid/rash decisions when we don't. He uses the example of Odysseus tying himself to the mast as they transit through the Sirens and their rocky coasts(1). He argued that it is not often that our biggest goals remain out of reach because they are physically unobtainable, but because of our own lack of willpower.

Some common examples: not bringing junk food into the house so you won't eat it, unplugging the internet so you won't be tempted to use it, locking a credit card away with a key (or more creatively in a block of ice).

Some obviously work better than others, and successful devices require good planning. The downside to these devices is that they are a constant reminder of our own pitiful lack of self-control. We can also rationalize them away and come up with very legitimate reasons why we can't do them on a particular occasions (thus diminishing their value).

His emphasis was on the disconnect between our present-selves and future-selves. He took the novel of idea of taking age-progression software and allowing decisions by the user directly effect the emotional state of the age-enhanced photo (by simply making it smile or frown). This gives the user the opportunity to begin to care for this person and makes the imagined at least a little more tangible. I know I am more likely to be charitable when I have a particular person in mind than simply thinking about how cool an idea or institution is.

The Wikipedia article on the topic states " "some game theorists have argued that human emotions and sense of honor are forms of commitment device." There seems to be a fine line here as other research has said that publicly sharing your goals tends to decrease their outcome (as the positive comments from others tend to reduce motivation). We also seem to get some personal pleasure from simply fantasizing about completion of the goals. This research however has not incorporated social networks. My intuition makes me think this is different than casually mentioning it in conversation to strangers or very close friends who will want to encourage us. Social networks have the nice feature of incorporating people who might also be happy to jovially ridicule us if we fail. What social networks do is require us to marry our goals and honor (and also provide negative feedback if we don't live up to them).

It seems like for minor goals, I might want to keep my mouth shut. For those where I really want to succeed (but doubt myself) I should include others. I should also logically only do this when the results would be visible to that network (so they can hold me accountable). It seems this another important aspect. Another study among Chilean entrepreneurs found "that self-help peer groups can be a highly effective alternative commitment device to encourage savings, with participation in a peer group program increasing the number of deposits in formal savings accounts 3.5-fold and almost doubling the average savings balance."

This will be a nice tool to use if I keep up my thirty day challenges. I also found an interesting story of a gentleman who ambitiously gave up all his vices at once. Here is a related story about commitment devices.

Like most things, it seems success depends on careful planning....

1 Another blog I read gave the example of Cortes burning his own ships to show there would be no going back after their arrival.