Bryan Caplan  

Selling Self-Control: Will It Take Off?

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I've previously argued that much - perhaps most - talk about "self-control" problems reflects social desirability bias rather than genuine inner conflict:

Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they "want to change" is that that's what they're supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he's a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won't admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentent. The drunk who says "I was such a fool!" gets some pity; the drunk who says "I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids" gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

Now some smart folks at Yale are putting my theory to the test:
Nalebuff thinks the weight loss will happen only if there is something of importance being risked....he suggested I enter into a contract in which I agree to pay him if I don't drop some pounds. "As much as people don't like to lose money, what they really don't like to lose is their own money," he said.

In fact, some of his Yale colleagues are in the final stages of launching a business based on this very concept. They have started a company called stickK.com that will allow people to take out a contract on themselves. They pick a price. If they don't lose a certain amount of weight, they lose the money, either to a charity, friends or family.

If I'm right, this is going to remain a niche market. Most alcoholics and obese people don't want to take out a contract on themselves because they don't want to change - at least if change means being unpleasantly sober or hungry.

Even so, it's great that this market exists. If someone tells you that he really wants to change, now you can tell him to put his money where his mouth is.

HT: Mankiw.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/774
The author at The Undercover Economist in a related article titled You bet! My commitment bond adventure writes:
    I've written before about making some kind of financial commitment in an effort to fight weak will. Thomas Schelling would approve, I am sure. But now lawyer-author-economist Ian Ayres (his new book, Supercrunchers, is great fun) is setting up a [Tracked on November 13, 2007 12:47 PM]
COMMENTS (4 to date)
Nacim writes:

I've had this idea a long time ago and in fact I still use it. If I need motivation to go to the gym often I would set up an arrangement with someone whereby I'm supposed to go workout 3 times a week. For every time I don't go, I have to hand off $20.

I found that this worked really well when I did it with my mom since
a) I can't lie to her.
b) She's a tough enforcer which meant she didn't capitulate to my excuses.

I did this for a 4-5 months and I only missed two or three workouts when I happened to be really tired/out of it. I always recommend this to people who need motivation. Losing $20 for being lazy is quite painful...

Jeffrey Rae writes:

Pre-commitment strategies, such as the contract proposed by the Yale researchers, are prominent in much of the literature on addiction. They are thought to be effective ways of addressing periodic failures of self-control.

Some believe such lapses are the cause of addictions, such as gambling, drugs, alcohol and food (obesity, bulimia, etc). Such a perspective is evident in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychologists Association.

An alternative explanation (developed by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy) is that addicts are economically rational, farsighted and in control but their objects of desire are characterized by inter-temporal complementarity: the more of them you consume today the more you will want to consume tomorrow. I think that their rational addiction model is a more parsimonious explanation of 'addiction' but there are stylized features of addiction that it apparently does not explain (e.g. periodic binges).

My problem with the loss of self-control hypothesis this is that it relies completely on self-reporting. People are defined as having lost self-control when they say that's what happened to them.

They are presumed not to lie, even though 'addicts' would have a clear incentive to do so. Lying would help to avoid being classified as selfish and/or irresponsible. This is on the assumption that such a classification is less socially damaging than simply being classified as suffering from a 'sickness' (i.e. the loss of self-control).

Michael Sullivan writes:

Is this really a good empirical test? The problem is that these contracts only make the incentive bigger, they don't do anything else to help somebody change.

If somebody *truly* wants to change but can't, then they already have an incentive, and the incentive isn't doing the job. Will making it bigger help? I don't know, maybe, maybe not. It's a test of seriousness, but I'm not sure the larger incentive is all that meaningful

And bear in mind that the incentive offered here is *purely* negative. So a rational utility maximizer would only take this deal if they judged that it increased their chances of success by enough to offset the risk of losing the money.

Seems like a dicey proposition to me. The bigger the incentive the money provides (and thus the more likely it actually improves outcomes), the greater the potential loss that needs to be offset.

The other problem with using this for weight loss is that (as nearly anyone who actually has problems with obesity can tell you) it's not nearly as hard to take a bunch of weight off, as it is to *keep* it off. millions of people lose weight, but something less than 5% of the people who lose >40lbs or so actually keep from regaining *all* of it within a few years.

If they are setting these up as short term loss contracts rather than as long term maintenance contracts, it's just giving people incentive to *damage* their health (since losing weight and gaining it back is generally worse than never losing it).

Joe Bingham writes:

Steven King already thought of this. "Quitters, Inc." is about a company where if you don't quit smoking/overeating/whatever, they cut a finger off your wife's hand. It works.

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