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Achieving long-term goals

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We are all aware of the limits to our willpower. We will say we want a healthy lifestyle but fall victim to temptation when we get the opportunity to smoke, drink, or eat unhealthy foods. One of the ways we can try to address this if we want to is through commitments.

Commitment problems arise because of something economists call time inconsistency, where our preferences (what we want to do) are different across different times and places. It is almost as if we are a different person when we make a plan, vowing not to have a drink one night and when we actually have the opportunity to do it.

In fact, there is a long history behind the idea that there are two selves, the planner who plans things over the long term and the doer who does things in the moment, and that these two selves are often in conflict with one another.

The famous 18th-century economist Adam Smith spoke of the “impartial spectator” who dealt with “self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct, require”. In contrast, the impulsive doer would often engage in activities that involved short-term gratification but long-term costs (Ashraf et al, 2005).

Taming the doer

Commitment devices attempt to deal with time inconsistency by removing a choice we might be tempted to make. The economist Steven Levitt concisely summarised commitments as “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces the desired result”.

Commitment devices are as old as time: the famous story of the Greek hero Odysseus sees him tie himself to the mast of a ship to resist the calling song of the sirens. Many people are intuitively aware of commitment devices and may impose penalties on themselves or deadlines that force them to get something done and avoid procrastinating.

Today there are many innovative technologies that aid people in commitment. One of the best examples is the plethora of alarm clocks that commit you to get up top by running around the room making noise or donating money to your least favoured political party. The planner sets the alarm clock to force the doer to comply in the morning.

But we should not always assume the planner is right and the doer is wrong. If the planner took control, we might find ourselves never actually enjoying life, always oriented towards the future by eating boring but healthy food, buying an invasive alarm clock, or straining our brains by reading dense non-fiction books instead of watching TV. What is crucial about time inconsistency is the inconsistency itself—we can’t truly know which preference, at which time, is correct. We will return to this issue when discussing the ethics of nudging next week.

Over to you

Think about examples of commitment devices you have used in the past. They could be something personal, like not buying unhealthy snacks for the fridge; or professional, like setting deadlines and putting aside hours to work on projects. Discuss them in the comments.

References

1. Ashraf N, Camerer CF, Loewenstein G. Adam Smith, Behavioral economist. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 2005 Sep;19(3):131-45.

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