Commitment device

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Chinese military general Han Xin purportedly created a commitment device for his soldiers: he placed them with their backs to a river to make sure they would fight.

A commitment device is, according to journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, "a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result".[1] Put differently, a commitment device is a "way to change one's own incentives to make an otherwise empty promise credible".[2]

A commitment device is a technique where someone makes it easier for themselves to avoid akrasia (acting against one's better judgment), particularly procrastination.

Overview[edit]

Odysseus lashed to the mast by his first mate. Depicted by the Siren Painter.

The term "commitment device" is used in both economics and game theory. In particular, the concept is relevant to the fields of economics and especially the study of decision making (Brocas, et al.).

A common example comes from mythology: Odysseus' plan to survive hearing the sirens' song without jumping overboard. Economist Jodi Beggs writes "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" (Beggs 2009).

Behavioral economist Daniel Goldstein describes how commitment devices established in "cold states" help an agent guard against impulsive decisions in later, emotional, stimulated, "hot states". Goldstein says that, despite their usefulness, commitment devices nevertheless have drawbacks. Namely, they still rely on some self control.[3] Goldstein says that, for one, a commitment device can promote learned helplessness in the agent. If the agent enters a situation where the device does not incentivize commitment, the agent may lack sufficient will or ability to control themselves. (Goldstein uses the example of a cake falling into the grey area of a diet, so it is eaten excessively.) Second, commitment devices can usually be reversed. (An unplugged distracting electronic can be plugged back in.) [3]

Goldstein says "In effect you are like Odysseus and the first mate in one person. You're binding yourself, and then you're weasling your way out of it, and then you're beating yourself up for it afterwards."[3]

Methods[edit]

  • Create larger obstacles to temptations to increase the costs of temptations.
  • Make it well known of your commitment, thus putting your reputation on the line.
  • Make a monetary contract with someone to increase the benefit of staying on course.

Other Examples[edit]

A soldier receives a Medal of Honor. Game theorists suggest that human cultural constructs like "Honor" might function as commitment devices.

Examples of commitment devices abound. Dubner and Levitt give the example of Han Xin, a general in Ancient China, who positioned his soldiers with their backs to a river, making it impossible for them to flee, thereby leaving them no choice but to attack the enemy head-on. They also present various commitment devices related to weight loss (2007). In addition, some game theorists have argued that human emotions and sense of honor are forms of commitment device (Arslan 2011 & Ross and Dumouchel 2004). Other examples include announcing commitments publicly and mutually assured destruction (Straker 2011), as well as software programs that block internet access for a predetermined period of time.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]