"Precommitment devices" will help you to lose weight, stop drinking, and not sleep with jerks on first dates.

Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 21 2011 12:46 PM

The Odysseus Option

How "precommitment devices" will force you to lose weight, stop drinking, and not sleep with that jerk on a first date.

Odysseus. Click image to expand.
Odysseus may have been the first practitioner of the precommitment device

If you agree—and only if you agree—Progressive Insurance will give you a device to install in your car that will rat you out for jack-rabbit starts and slamming on the brakes. * It's a small thing that plugs into your on-board diagnostic system, and it transmits as you drive. If your little minder shows that you don't act like Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel, you'll save up to 30 percent on your auto insurance. Although there's no official penalty for letting the company find out that you regularly lay down rubber, in fact you'll pay more for coverage than will tamer drivers. You'll also be acting to tame your own behavior by raising the price of recklessness.

Progressive's driving spy is a sneaky example of the "precommitment device," a technique that people use to bind themselves to their preferred desires, and a subject I have been studying for my new book about the problem of self-control, We Have Met the Enemy.

People have all kinds of desires, of course—even boring people like me, for whom a midlife crisis means not a red sports car but a nifty new Apple router. And all of us prefer some of our desires to others. For instance, you may want to knock back a few martinis at lunch on Thursday or sleep with your wife's younger sister the next time you see her. But you probably also want to keep your job and stay out of divorce court. For obvious reasons these latter desires are the ones you prefer. The problem is, how to adhere to them?

Enter precommitment. On Wednesday, for example, looking ahead, you order a nice healthy salad to be delivered Thursday—and then you eat it at your desk, far from any sources of gin or vermouth. As for your sister-in-law, whenever you're supposed to visit you find an excuse to stay away, thereby sheltering yourself from temptation.

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But of course you could still ignore the salad on the desk and go out and drink your lunch, or you could take the radioactive sister-in-law to a concert. Most commitment techniques—including marriage—are just too easily circumvented.

That's why truly binding precommitment devices are so interesting. The first known practitioner of such voluntary bondage was wily Odysseus, en route home from the Trojan War. As his ship approached the Sirens, he was determined to hear their song without, well, going overboard. Necessity being the mother of invention, he invented history's first precommitment device. "You must bind me tight with chafing ropes," our hero instructs in Robert Fagles' translation, "so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot, erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast. And if I plead, commanding you to set me free, then lash me faster. …"

What a moment! The Odyssey is really all about self-control, and Odysseus' foresight and skill at managing desire explains why he—and he alone—survives the harrowing journey back to Ithaca. His actions in this instance set the standard for all who would later enlist others to compel themselves to follow their own commands.

Once you become aware of precommitment (the term was coined by economist Robert Strotz in 1956), it crops up everywhere. Thomas De Quincey, for example, tells us that Coleridge hired strong men to keep him out of opium dens—a practice that persists to this day in the "sobriety minders" who are hired to help celebrities keep their noses clean. The adventures of one real-life minder, however embellished, even became the basis of a TV show, The Cleaner. Following World War I, a disillusioned Ludwig Wittgenstein took great pains to give away his fortune irrevocably, just as armies in the past have burned their boats to make retreat impossible.

And let's not forget Young Frankenstein, in which Gene Wilder asks to be locked in a room with the monster. "Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature," he tells his aides, "and I am going to convince him that he is loved even at the cost of my own life. No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open this door."

A minute later of course, he's begging to be let out—but that's the point. Precommitment works by putting the wrong choice beyond reach. And best of all, it's voluntary.