(image: Sami Panu CC BY)

Careful with commitment

How our determination to avoid making a bad decision may lead to an even worse one

The comedy show The Two Ronnies used to feature a recurring sketch, In The Chair. Ronnie Corbett, on his own in high-back seat, started what initially promised to be a short monologue — some joke or funny anecdote. The real joke, however, was that he almost immediately deviated from the subject, meandering on and on through a sequence of wholly unrelated topics, only to return to the original tale after six or seven minutes, to complete the sketch.

This kind of raconteurship is an excellent skill if you are comedian. If, however, your role is to introduce speakers at a conference and moderate questions from the audience, verbosity and timekeeping are not the best of friends — no matter how engaging your stories. This is why the team running the show at the 2016 edition of Nudgestock (the annual behaviouralists’ jamboree in the UK) struck a deal with host Rory Sutherland. Rory’s brain harbours a vast collection of highly relevant insights which, given half an opportunity, he generously shares. The risk of 7 minutes Q&A after each session turning into 20 minutes was very, very real. Every time he exceeded the allocated time, he would be fined £50.

But that was not all: the fines would be donated to the Remain campaign for the Brexit referendum, which would take place three weeks later. Rory was suspected of sympathizing with Vote Leave, so donations to the opposing camp would, so the team thought, be an extra disincentive to excessive meandering. (There were no overruns.)

This is approach is known as a commitment device, an instrument to help you stick to intentions expressed, or promises made, earlier. It is one of the oldest behavioural tools in the box, also known as the Ulysses contract, named after the intrepid traveller. He wanted to hear the enchanting song of the sirens without being lured to jump overboard and perish. So he made a ‘contract’ with his men, instructing them to tie him tightly to the mast and put wax in their own ears, and not to release him under any condition until they were out of earshot of the sirens again.

The one thing it doesn’t have is a snooze button (photo: Brian DeWitt CC BY)

Commitment devices have a wide variety of applications, typically where an individual intends to follow a certain course of action in the future, but when it comes to making the choice, is likely to choose differently. Often this is a matter of irresistible temptation. To avoid wasting time that should be spent revising, a student might, for example, reveal her Facebook password to a friend, ask him to change it and only change it back when the exams are over. Someone who can’t leave the biscuits alone may lock them away in a cupboard and give the key to another person in the household.

There are even commercial applications out there to help you. A company called automates the process of tracking progress towards your intended goal (e.g. lose 10 kilos in weight, save £1,000, or tidy up the garage). It makes use of loss aversion (users put money at stake which, like in Rory Sutherland’s case, in case of failing to stick to the intention, may be donated to a despised purpose to amplify its effect further), as well as nominated referees that can coach you, supporters to cheer you on etc. Another example is the cute alarm clock that helps you resist the temptation to hit that snooze button. It jumps off the bedside table, and runs around the room so you need to get out of bed to silence it.

Commitment devices can also be used to signal trustworthiness to other people. A friend once needed to settle a taxi fare but realized he didn’t have enough cash and the driver didn’t take cards. He left his right shoe with the driver while he went looking for an ATM, to underline his assurance he would return rather than disappear without paying.

Such a commitment to others does not even need to involve a material stake, and can be as simple as a verbal promise. Here too loss aversion is the central mechanism that forces you to do the right thing: the loss of your reputation. Friends and colleagues would quickly take a dim view if you kept making and breaking promises to them.

The purpose of a commitment device is to make sure you do not select a course of action, from the available options, that is detrimental. That can be done in two ways. One approach is to ensure that, when the choice is to be made, you select the option to pursue through deliberate reasoning, using all available relevant information — not by giving in to temptation. The other one is to eliminate the detrimental options ahead of the moment of choice, or at least make them so costly to pursue that you will go for the advantageous one. Yet both approaches carry risks.

Say you are often tempted to spend way too much using your credit card. An example of the first approach might be to put your credit card in a wallet with the message “ARE YOU SURE?” This would commit you to considering whether the purchase you are about to make is a wise one. But it is, of course, very easy to override. Picture Ulysses, instead of being tied to the mast, had simply put up a notice saying “SURE YOU WANT TO JUMP?” We don’t know how enchanting the siren song really was, but it would certainly have been a risky strategy — just as it would be to trust such a message will stop you overspending when you’ve seen something really, really alluring.

So, like Ulysses, you might adopt a more drastic strategy, and cut off the option of being tempted by cutting up your credit card altogether. But now imagine that your last train is cancelled and there is no way to get home. You need to check into a hotel for the night — easy when you’ve got the magic plastic in your wallet, rather more problematic with just £22.46 in cash…

But what if the unexpected happens? (photo: Mike CC BY)

Most commitment devices are of this type, because they make breaking your commitment much harder than the other one. But that means they must make changing your mind very difficult, if not impossible. This is fine provided two implicit assumptions hold. One is that, once you have committed to an option (ahead of the actual moment of choice), no amount of further deliberate reasoning will lead you to a different decision. The other one is that all will remain as it is: no new facts will emerge or events will occur that would have led you to a different decision, had you known them when you made it.

And that is by no means always the case.

Committing — unconditionally committing — to a particular decision when there is uncertainty, especially when there are unknown unknowns, can be problematic. The ongoing Brexit saga, the gift that keeps on giving, supplies two nice illustrations. Early in the Brexit process, former prime minister Theresa May famously committed to taking the UK not only out of the EU, but also out of the Single Market, out of the Customs Union and out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (her so-called three “red lines”). That ill thought through decision would become her downfall, when its consequences for the economy and for the border with Ireland became apparent. She had promised something she could not deliver. And parliament is currently dealing with the implications of its decision in March 2017 to unconditionally hand over the power for leaving the EU, with or without a deal, to the prime minister. It is, as I write this, now frantically trying to recover the power it rashly gave away.

There is another risk in using public promises as a commitment device, and effectively putting your reputation at stake. That is something a certain successor to Theresa May’s is experiencing these days. When you commit to one group of people that you will leave the EU on 31st October, “do or die”, deal or no deal, and reassure another one you are making good progress talking with the EU and that you are confident you will secure a deal, while there is no discernible evidence of new proposals, or indeed of any negotiation taking place, you are not doing your credibility much good. When you promise not to suspend parliament, only to do just that a few days later, you are not showing great concern for being trustworthy. And when the perception grows that, perhaps, you are not all that concerned about your reputation, you risk rapidly losing confidence and trust in what you promise.

Commitment devices can be very useful and powerful to protect us against making bad decisions. But be mindful of the quote that is sometimes ascribed to the great economist, John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind.” If you eliminate all possibility to change your mind, you may end up regretting engaging the commitment device. And of course — but you surely knew that already — public promises can only work if there actually is a reputation to preserve.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on September 6, 2019.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every week) here. Thank you!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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