As a behavioral economist (and also a person who exhibits most of the biases and shortcomings that I study), I think a lot about commitment devices. (Sidenote: I am shocked that “commitment device” doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia page.) Commitment devices are a way to overcome the discrepancy between an individual’s short-term and long-term preferences- in other words, they are a way for self-aware people to modify their incentives or set of possible choices in order to overcome impatience or other irrational behavior. You know the story of Ulysses tying himself to the mast so that he couldn’t be lured in by the song of the Sirens? You can think of that as the quintessential commitment device.
Based on my very thorough anecdotal research, I find that people often use telling others about their goals or plans as a form of commitment device. Intuitively, this should work fabulously, since one is going to feel like a dumbass if he tells the world that he is going to go to the gym every day and then shows later that he’s not actually following through. But before you go off and buy a billboard in Times Square to advertise your plans for world domination, you should take a gander at what Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, taught me about the issue:
“Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.
Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.
In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.
NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book “Symbolic Self-Completion” (pdf article here) – and recently published results of new tests in a research article, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?”
Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.
Once you’ve told people of your intentions, if gives you a “premature sense of completeness.”
You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”
A related test found that success on one sub-goal (eating healthy meals) reduced efforts on other important sub-goals (going to the gym) for the same reason.”
The moral of the story: next time you have a goal you want to achieve, at least consider that it might be a wise idea to keep it to yourself. Put less tactfully, wait until you’ve actually done something before you go bragging about it, k?