In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.
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Commitment Strategies 101
Recently I blogged about myopic choice–and how, just like Wall Street traders, we’re all pulled into making short-sighted decisions that compromise our future interests. And I think I left everyone feeling a bit depressed about our inability to make good choices. So, I’m back with some good news, borrowed once again from behavioral economics and psychology: We can prevent those myopic choices from ruling our lives. How? By setting up commitment strategies.
A commitment strategy is one way in which we trick ourselves into overriding our urge to make myopic choices.
A simple example is the alarm clock: When you set your alarm clock at 11 p.m. as you go to bed, you do it because you know you have to get up at 6 a.m. You also know that at 6 a.m. the last thing you’ll want to do is wake up, and if you don’t set an alarm you’ll sleep too late.
Another commitment strategy is to make a public announcement of your intentions. Want to lose weight? If you tell everyone about your goals, and ask for help sticking to it, you’re more likely to achieve.
We employ a commitment strategy when we know that it is important for us to do something in the future — get up — so now, before we go to bed, we are setting up some ways to make sure that will happen, even when we won’t want to do it at the time, and before we head out to that all-you-can-eat buffet, we’ve told our friends that we’re “being good.”
For more commitment strategies, check out the blog associated with the fun book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Those are just small examples. The larger issue, argued brilliantly by Oxford professor (and my doctoral thesis advisor) Avner Offer, is that in a time of affluence, it becomes harder and harder to employ those commitment strategies because there are so many possible choices … and so many possible things to choose from right now.
In his book, The Challenge of Affluence, he argues that the flow of novelty undermines those who lack the capacity to cope with its compelling attractions. On a micro scale, this means that we are having sex earlier, that we eat more fast food and highly caloric food, that we smoke cigarettes. On a macro scale, this means that we as a country don’t save money, but just keep spending it.
And you thought “commitment” was just something you had to worry about in your relationship.