That’s Bound To Help: The Strange World of Precommitment Devicesby JDK on Jan 25, 2011 • 11:54 am 6 Comments
Over at Slate, there is a fascinating look into the lengths people will go to protect themselves against, well, themselves. In an article entitled, “The Odyesseus Option: How “precommitment devices” will force you to lose weight, stop drinking, and not sleep with that jerk on the first date,” Daniel Akst introduces us to a future where the myth of human progress will finally become too expensive to maintain. I can’t think of better reading in preparation for our upcoming conference, because whatever the practical (and sometimes, no doubt, safety) benefits to “pre-commitment devices,” this can’t be our only hope. Here are a few excerpts:
If you agree—and only if you agree—Progressive Insurance will give you a device to install in your car that will rat you out for jack-rabbit starts and slamming on the brakes.* It’s a small thing that plugs into your on-board diagnostic system, and it transmits as you drive. If your little minder shows that you don’t act like Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel, you’ll save up to 30 percent on your auto insurance. Although there’s no official penalty for letting the company find out that you regularly lay down rubber, in fact you’ll pay more for coverage than will tamer drivers. You’ll also be acting to tame your own behavior by raising the price of recklessness. Progressive’s driving spy is a sneaky example of the “precommitment device,” a technique that people use to bind themselves to their preferred desires, and a subject I have been studying for my new book about the problem of self-control, We Have Met the Enemy.
But of course you could still ignore the salad on the desk and go out and drink your lunch, or you could take the radioactive sister-in-law to a concert. Most commitment techniques—including marriage—are just too easily circumvented. That’s why truly binding precommitment devices are so interesting. The first known practitioner of such voluntary bondage was wily Odysseus, en route home from the Trojan War. As his ship approached the Sirens, he was determined to hear their song without, well, going overboard. Necessity being the mother of invention, he invented history’s first precommitment device. “You must bind me tight with chafing ropes,” our hero instructs in Robert Fagles’ translation, “so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot, erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast. And if I plead, commanding you to set me free, then lash me faster. …” . . .
Most of us really ought to make more use of such techniques, as Dean Karlan and John Romalis did. The two economists each agreed to lose 38 pounds in six months or forfeit half his annual income to the other. They made a similar deal to keep the weight off afterward. This all worked well enough that Karlan later went on to found stickK.com, a Web site that allows you to provide a credit card number and make a legally binding agreement to do (or not do) a certain thing. If you fail—and you can appoint a referee to decide—then you forfeit the money, which the site will give to a friend or enemy you’ve chosen. (You can also choose a charity you like—or one you hate, such as the George W. Bush or Bill Clinton library, which might be even more motivating.
As a libertarian-leaning Democrat, I’ve tried to think of ways the government might help us with precommitment. Some states and Canadian provinces already allow gamblers to bar themselves from casinos for a period of years. In British Columbia, some gamblers on the self-exclusion registry got in anyway and lost several hundred thousand dollars. They sued the province and the casinos for failing to do what Jenny Holzer said: “Protect me from what I want.”
What if we took this kind of thing further? One possibility might be to let people sign up to pay extra taxes based on the change in their weight. Health costs are largely socialized anyway, and there is precedent in the private sector, where insurers setting term-life premiums often take account of smoking, cholesterol, and other factors that individuals can influence. Another idea would be to require a driver’s license or other I.D. for the purchase of cigarettes or alcohol. The state would offer to emblazon these “NO TOBACCO,” for example, until the next renewal, perhaps three years later. During that time stores couldn’t sell you the stuff.
Modern life is a wonderful thing, rife with freedom and opportunity, but it comes with the problem of self-control. That’s a nice problem, since I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to be in charge. Yet most of us are probably kidding ourselves if we think willpower alone can do the job. Much better to make like Odysseus and face the music in safety.
Or get in touch.