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Be Careful With Those Commitment Devices…

June 17th, 2009 · 23 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Decision Making

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.”

An ungated version of the actual academic paper is available here. You can also find an earlier post I did on Alli (the weight-loss drug) as a commitment device here.

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?

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Decision Making

23 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jon seligman // Jun 17, 2009 at 8:11 am

    interesting,didn’t know that they had a name for that behavior ,i have announced my plans my whole life and followed through with most.

  • 2 Rev. Pfloyd // Jun 17, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Oh man, so does this mean I *won’t* be going to grad school for Economics? 🙁

  • 3 Steve Davis // Jun 17, 2009 at 9:45 am

    And now I have my phrase for the day: “premature sense of completeness.”

    I’m curious about people signing commitment pledges like this one at Harvard Business School Students pledged to act ethically. Will that public commitment weaken students’ private resolve?

    Is there a difference in effect between committing to an action (like saying out loud that you want to write a novel) and committing to a value (like acting ethically, or promising to uphold the Constitution)? Or perhaps there’s a difference between committing to an action and committing to inaction (e.g., to *not* steal).

  • 4 GrahamB // Jun 17, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I think the issue becomes who you are announcing your goals to. Telling friends about your goals still seems to have all the right incentives still in place.

    Any initial boost in esteem will be taken away when you eventually fail. And if most groups of friends are anything like mine, they don’t automatically think higher of someone when he/she announces their goals because of the knowledge of past failures.

    Strangers or acquaintances are much less likely to discover a failure and therefore they are much more appealing to mine for a short term esteem boost without needing to actually follow through.

    Question: Do our views towards likely commitment to a goal differ between acquaintances and those we are very close to?

  • 5 Rev. Pfloyd // Jun 17, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I guess we are overlooking the obvious but, if I remember correctly, in the United States statistically teenage girls who take “celibacy pledges” tend to have sex earlier and are more likely to become pregnant than those who don’t.

  • 6 Justin // Jun 17, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Seems like any commitment device is only as good as it’s cost, like any other sort of contract or signal.

    Marriage is a very costly commitment signal. Gym pledges/memberships less so.

    Perhaps that’s why marriages last longer than diets.

    Although if he costs of divorce could be brought down somehow…

  • 7 Rev. Pfloyd // Jun 17, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Excellent point!

  • 8 Bob Nease // Jun 17, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Did these studies control for difficulty of the task that was trying to be completed? (Folks trying harder things might go to greater lengths – such as blabbing to others.)

    I have a commitment device that works, but doesn’t rely on any public statements. I have no TV in the house, except a monitor with a DVD player that’s attached to the wall right in front of the treadmill. There’s no where to sit (treadmill is in the basement) so I have essentially entangled working out with zoning out. It works by telescoping into the present the (hyperbolically discounted) future benefits of exercise.

  • 9 Tony C // Jun 18, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Justin nailed the point I was thinking about while reading this post.

    If you tell your friends that you’re going to lose 10 pounds, good friends might pat you on the back and say “Good job. We’re there for you.” That kind of support has little downside because good friends will stick with you even if your diet plan fails. You might feel sad if you give up the diet, but how much does that cost if you still have friends to share a pint of ice cream?

    Good, nice friends provide little incentive to stick with a diet plan, compared with friends who say “Great. If you don’t lose 10 pounds, we’ll stop being your friends.” or worse still “If you don’t lose 10 pounds, I will steal your boyfriend.” Provided that you like your boyfriend or your friends and you believe they’ll follow through on the threat, these are good incentives for losing weight.

    But, comments like those aren’t credible threats from people we call friends, so telling friends about our intended diet plan is a weak commitment device at best. I don’t think we should be surprised it doesn’t work.

  • 10 pheaz // Jun 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I’m wondering how this plays out in the context of social networking sites like facebook. Its been my experience sinced I joined, when I was a freshmen in college in 2003, that for the most part people tend to carry out their intentions through their status updates and will typically provide evidence through pictures. (Yes I came from the “photo whore group” you know the kind of network that bosts a person with 8 albums of beer guzzling and the average number of friends per person is 1,000). Basically, I think there is an overtone that if you don’t post a picture or have a credible friend to certify your status through comments or something that you didn’t actually do it and your a loser. So I think your integrity and your legitimacy as a friend is clearly on the line because its easier to get found out and labeled a fraud when you lie or fail in such an interconnected community.
    So, I think one can classify facebook as a good commitment device.

    *Not sure if this helps. I’m not used to using the technical language above.

  • 11 Henry Hildebrand // Jun 22, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    looks like someone else noticed this phenomenon too.

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  • 13 The Tyrant Alarm Clock: The (Almost) Perfect Commitment Device « The View From LL2 // Dec 17, 2009 at 9:18 am

    […] your intended goal is, so you have the fear of being judged to spurn you into action — may actually be psychologically counter productive: Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make […]

  • 14 Clifton Hounchell // Oct 14, 2011 at 9:07 am

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  • 15 Jasmine Dinius // Nov 16, 2011 at 6:48 am

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  • 17 todoodle blogMake commitment devices work for you // Feb 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

    […] Did you ever tell someone about your plan to ensure that you commit and achieve it? Did you actually achieve it? Probably not! As soon as people announce their goal they get a false sense of completeness and will decrease their motivation to “actually” achieving the goal. There is a good article you may want to read (Be Careful With Those Commitment Devices…). […]

  • 18 invest liberty reserve // Feb 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm

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  • 19 Steve Lowe // Jul 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    There exists, which lets people enter in a monetary commitment, a goal, and a date. If they don’t reach the goal (i.e. ‘read for 10 hours a week’ or ‘exercise for 10 hours a week’) then they have to pay whatever bounty they put down. It is an interesting way to amplify your incentives.

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