I’ll go to the gym.
I’ll lose weight.
I’ll quit smoking.
I’ll stop drinking too much.
I’ll curb my calorie intake.
“We really should catch up next week!”
Will you though?
The worst thing about making a promise is seeing a few days pass only for you to break it.
We’ve been down this road so many times before.
I sure have.
And still travel there every now and then.
I too am guilty of having a dusty treasure chest full of broken self-made promises that’s in a storage closet sitting comfortably on a worn-out chair I no longer use.
But by delving into the psychology of goal-setting, I’ve found out about how to make sure I don’t add any more broken promises to my conscience.
So how can you make good on the promises you make to yourself and to others?
First, you need to know why you’re breaking them.
Second, you need to identify whether you are aware of some inherent psychological tendencies that are influencing yours choices and decision-making. Only with awareness will you be able to make better promises.
Thirdly, you will learn that commitment devices will have you make good on the promises you made to yourself and to others. They will also help you achieve your long-term goals, especially when you feel that the odds are stacked against you.
Why we’re imperfect
As humans, we intend to be rational in the sense that we are goal-oriented and adaptive but we oftentimes fail to make good on our promises due to our limited cognitive capabilities and emotional architecture (Jones, 1999).
What is generally meant by limited cognitive capabilities is not only that we can’t calculate math problems as efficiently as computers can but we also suffer from self-control and discounting issues.
Let’s break that down shall we.
We have self-control issues
We lack perfect willpower.
To make matters worse, willpower isn’t permanent. It is a finite resource.
And because self-control is cognitively effortful and psychologically costly, we can run out of willpower pretty quickly if we don’t use it wisely (You can read more about willpower here)
We have discounting issues
That is, we have an natural preference for smaller-sooner rewards to larger-later rewards, even though the consequences of the latter tend to be more optimal (Teuscher and Mitchell, 2011).
For instance, you might prefer smoking (i.e. smaller-sooner reward) to having optimal long-term health (i.e. larger-later reward).
You can read more about this stuff in excruciating detail here (I’ve really sold it, haven’t I).
Now that we know why we’re breaking these self-made promises – what can we do to help us tackle these issues?
Sophisticated agents v.s naïve agents
When we look at self-control and discounting issues, you are either a sophisticated agent or a naive agent.
Which category do you belong to?
The sophisticated agent
Sophisticated agents are aware of their self-control issues.
They are aware of the fact that they tend to be present-biased. Being present-biased means that you overvalue things way too much in the moment.
For instance, you can overvalue smoking a cigarette in the moment when you really need one.
You can overvalue the reward of checking Facebook when you should be doing your coursework (procrastination, anyone?)
So sophisticated agents are aware of their present-bias but take into account that their future self will also have this bias.
They know that some time down the line, a whiff of cigarette smoke or the sound of receiving email on your phone could tempt you into immediate indulgence.
The naïve agent
Naïve agents on the other hand are not aware of their self-control problems and will mistakenly assume that they will stick to today’s plans in the future.
They are not aware of the fact that they will be present-biased and will overvalue immediate pleasures in the moment.
They are not aware of the fact that they will devalue larger-later rewards (i.e. long term health) so as to indulge in smaller-sooner rewards (i.e. smoking).
Most importantly though – the sophisticated agent uses commitment devices to help him with self-control and discounting issues.
Commitment devices are the number one thing that will help you make good on the promises you made to yourself and others.
Commitment devices used to help you quit smoking
The sophisticated agent will use specifically tailored commitment devices to make sure they cut down on their smoking.
Initially, they might self-impose restrictions and daily limits upon themselves.
They may implement environmental constraints that would ultimately make it difficult for them to smoke.
They might throw away all their lighters. Heck, they might throw away the packs of cigarettes that they bought for themselves.
Smokers know that they will be present-biased at some point in the future and will therefore overvalue having a smoke.
Sophisticated agents are aware that they can be swayed by temptation and will use commitment devices to help them in their avoidance.
They stick to commitment devices to stay rational and help them with self control problems. They know their self-control will fail them, they know that they will overvalue smaller-sooner rewards and so they stick to commitment devices.
All because they simply don’t trust themselves.
Despite being fully aware of their cognitive shortcomings and irrational emotional impulses as Homo sapiens, smokers can still exhibit rational behaviour by using commitment devices.
Commitment device for alcoholics
Say you’re an alcoholic who’s tried every possible trick in the book to stop drinking but nothing seems to help.
Then you hear of a new vaccine that will help you stop drinking.
But there is one small caveat.
Every time you give in to temptation to have a swig of booze, you will experience all the symptoms of a horrific hangover, regardless of how little or how much you drink.
This is an example of an extreme commitment device.
Alcoholics are aware that sometime in the future, they will be tempted by a strong urge to drink. So they decide to get a vaccine that will make them commit to the goal of staying sober.
By doing this, an alcoholic is a sophisticated agent.
Commitment device for not flaking on your friends
Imagine you make plans with your friends for the weekend a week in advance but on the day realise that you’re way too tired to go out with them and would prefer to stay at home.
In that moment, you overvalue relaxing and resting.
So you flake.
But if you want to make sure that you guys see each other, you can use certain commitment devices to make it happen.
You can make reservations at a restaurant.
You can buying cinema or concert tickets in advance.
This will make sure that both of you find the time for each other.
Commitment device for getting work done
If you want to work on your application form or any other valuable piece of work that needs your attention – head out to the library or to your favourite cafe where you know you’ll be efficient.
It’s a vital step that you should commit to doing so that it brings you that one step closer to getting proper work done.
An experiment to illustrate the behavioural differences of the sophisticated and naïve agent
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario that will show how a sophisticated agent uses a commitment device to make the best choices for himself and how a naïve agent ends up worse off for being unaware of their self-control problems.
Researchers O’Donogue and Rabin (1999) presented a simple scenario to highlight the behavioural differences between sophisticated and naïve agents.
The hypothetical scenario is as follows:
The agent goes to the cinema every weekend. There’s a movie schedule for the entire month with various movies of differing quality.
The programme is as follows: an average movie in the first week, a good movie in the second week, a very good movie in the third week, and an excellent movie in the fourth week.
However, the agent has coursework due and will have to forgo watching one of the movies.
What the sophisticated agent will do
The sophisticated agent will preproperate and finish the coursework ahead of time and so he might choose to miss the average movie in the first weekend.
That is, he’s prepared to forgo watching the movie that will give him the least pleasure among all the other remaining movies available in the cinema that month.
Therefore the immediate cost of doing coursework is outweighed by the future benefit of watching a more satisfying movie.
Doing the coursework ahead of time so that the sophisticated agent can enjoy a more satisfying movie in the future is an example of a commitment device.
That is, he will make sure he commits to finishing the coursework ahead of time. He might set himself a self-imposed deadline. He might force himself to donate £100 to a charity that he despises.
What the naïve agent will do
The naïve agent will behave much differently.
In period one, he will decide to do the coursework and to miss the movie.
But he ends up watching the movie and postponing work on his coursework.
The same promise happens in period two and… the same promise is broken in period two.
This tendency occurs every week as he continues to postpone his coursework up to the point where he ends up missing the opportunity to watch the most satisfying, utility-yielding movie.
This is due to the fact that naïve agents tend to postpone actions that yield immediate costs (i.e. they procrastinate) so that they can indulge in actions that yield immediate pleasure.
In a nutshell
We have issues:
- We lack perfect willpower.
- We overvalue smaller-sooner rewards at the expense of larger-later rewards.
- We overvalue things in the present moment.
- Are aware of their present-bias, discounting tendencies, and self-control issues.
- Use rational commitment devices to help them out.
- Lack this awareness.
- Don’t use commitment devices at all.
- Only the sophisticated agent uses commitment devices. That is why awareness of inherent psychological tendencies is important.
- We use commitment devices to make sure we stick with achieving our long-term goals.
- We use them because we know that our self-control fails.
- We use them because we don’t trust ourselves.
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