Friday, September 28, 2012

Commitment devices - helpful but still limited

Commitment devices have been around for centuries. One of the most famous is how Odysseus, as recalled in Homer’s the Odyssey, had himself tied to the mast of the ship while the crew had beeswax in their ears. This allowed Odysseus to hear the Siren’s enchanting music and voices but he could not shipwreck the boat because he was tied up and the crew could not hear his cries to release him or the Sirens because they had beeswax in their ears.

It has been well studied that using will-power is hard work. Your brain and nervous system uses glucose, one of the main power sources of the body, to help us consciously overcome temptations by using our cognitive abilities to help us with what some call “free won’t”. Because if left to do things freely, we will often do the wrong thing for present self’s gain at the expense of future self, thus the term “free won’t” as compared to “free will”. The actual increase energy expenditure has been measured and thus we realize that will-power is an expendable resource. Just like going for a run, at some point everyone will deplete their energy source and not be able to continue.

Commitment devices are used to help create a better environment for us to function and reduce the energy needed for our will-power to have to work. Commitment devices are used to avoid akrasia. Akrasia is a big fancy word that you probably have never seen used before, but unfortunately have done what it means many times. Akrasia is the state of acting against one’s better judgment.

One example of a commitment device is not buying unhealthy snacks when at the grocery store. When you are tired and exhausted at night and your will-power energy stores are minimal you won’t do akrasia, by choosing an unhealthy snack because it is not in the house. It requires more energy to get in the car and drive to grocery store to get a bag chips or some ice cream so you are more prone to choose what you do have in the house. Which if you set up your commitment device properly is some fruits or vegetables. If our will-power is really low we may still drive to the store and get an unhealthy snack. In that case we may need a new commitment device such as having someone hid your car keys at night.

This brings us to a problem with commitment devices – we can almost always weasel our way around them. Also they are a reminder that we lack some self control and this takes away from our self-efficacy. So while commitment devices can be helpful, we also need to understand their limitations. Next week we will look how to help future self beyond just using commitment devices.


  1. Seems like you might enjoy the book "Switch: How to change things when change is hard" by Chip and Dan Heath. I have found the principles and strategies they present to be very helpful with 'change facilitation' and patient-compliance issues.

  2. Denny, yes I did enjoy "Switch" a great deal. Highly recommend it and as you pointed out it has a great deal of info helpful with change facilitation.

    Even wrote about it in the past.