In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s crew sailed past the island of the Sirens. In Greek lore, the Sirens were notorious for singing a song so enchanting that those who listened would sail toward the Sirens and end up crashing into the rocks, sealing their own fate.
The common solution of the era was to avoid listening to the song altogether – plugging one’s ears with beeswax. But Odysseus wanted to listen to the song… though, of course, he didn’t want to end up crashing his ship and killing his crew.
Thus, not trusting his future willpower, Odysseus had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship and precommitted to not be let go. Predictably, when he heard the song he begged to be released, but his crew followed his earlier orders and didn’t let him go. Odysseus survived on the basis of precommitment1.
The motivation for precommitment stems from a problem in human nature: there are some goals we find desirable (to know how to dance competently, to have good grades, to be fit and healthy, etc.) but still struggle to do certain activities that would accomplish these goals (take dance lessons, study hard for the upcoming test, exercise and eat right, etc.).
People are frequently averse to taking on short-term costs even if they would achieve long-term gains.2 People value their current time much more than the future (called hyperbolic discounting),3,4 struggle with low expectancy of success, struggle with the drudgery of actually performing the task, and are occasionally impulsive and forgetful with their tasks5,6.
Such failures to do what we want and act against our considered judgments are commonly called akrasia, or “weakness of will”, a term first coined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago. Odysseus recognized that he wouldn’t have enough willpower to resit the Siren’s song, so he took steps to ensure he would end up acting the way he wanted. He used precommitment to increase his willpower.
In our own lives, we face problems where we really want to do something, but face issues with our own willpower and procrostination. In looking for a solution, we can be like Odysseus… except without our lives having to be on the line. Precommitment is helpful at reducing the impulsiveness which drives procrastination and other forms of akrasia.7 While we don’t have to get tied to a mast, the idea is the same – one takes an earlier and easier action now (paying for a gym membership, promising a friend, or getting tied to a pole) that makes it much easier to perform the harder yet still desirable action later on.
The Pledge to Give
Many of us think giving to charity is personally desirable. People frequently pay more for products when they’re linked to charity.7 The act of giving also enriches people’s lives and make them lastingly happier.9,10,11 However, impulsiveness means many donations are made last minute, people forgetting to donate despite wanting to, and people pursuing giving in a haphazard and unstructured way. Just like it’s hard to eat right and exercise right, it seems hard to donate right as well.
At the organization Giving What We Can, members take a public pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to whichever organization they sincerely believe will do the most to help alleviate extreme poverty in the developing world. Such a pledge represents a precommitment to donate future earnings. But does it actually help people donate more than they otherwise would?
Does Precommitment Work?
In one study, smokers who wanted to quit were offered a savings account in which they deposited a considerable amount of funds for six months. After the sixth month period, the smokers are tested for nicotine via a urine test. If they are clean, they get back all the money in their savings account. If not, all the money is forfeited to charity. 11% of the smokers randomly offered the program took it on – about the same rate as those that accept other smoking treatments. Of those who accepted the program, 33% were able to quit smoking, which is 3% better than other top quitting programs.
More importantly, those who were smoke-free at the end of the program were also smoke-free at a surprise follow up test six months after the first study, a year after the people had signed-up. It seems precommitment had been able to produce lasting change in a way that financial incentives and nicotine replacements were not able to do so, against all the forces of habit and addiction that make people struggle with smoking.12
Along the same lines, despite the examples of people who buy a gym membership but then never use it, an examination does suggest that precommiting to the gym membership by paying for it in advance makes one more likely to go to the gym than those who express a desire but don’t get a membership. This also wasn’t just because those who would be willing to pay upfront had a stronger desire to go to the gym, because those who renewed their precommitment monthly were much more likely than those who committed for a year.13
Does Precommitment Work for Charity
Precommitment doesn’t just have to be for those who want to quit smoking or for those who want to exercise more. Indeed, precommitment can work for those who recognize they can donate a portion of their income and have a significant benefit in the world, yet have trouble getting around to actually donating.
In another experiment, monthly donors were randomly asked to either increase their donation immediately or precommit to increasing their donation in two months, not being told of the experiment. Those who were asked to precommit ended up increasing their donations on average 32% more than those who were asked immediately and a year later cancellation rates were statistically identical in both groups.14 Such results were duplicated when people were asked to precommit both imaginary and real raffle winnings in separate experiments.15
Why Does Precommitment Work?
Precommitment works well when you deliberately set things up so you cannot back out easily (backing out would be very expensive or downright impossible), but it also works even when the punishment for backing out is light. For example, backing out of a Giving What We Can pledge risks just the potential disappointment of a few people you don’t know on a personal level, or looking weird for having gone back on a public statement. So how is precommitment so powerful?
Neuroscience studies reveal that people give to charity for two primary reasons – pure altruism, or a desire to genuinely help other people, and the “warm glow” of self-satisfaction.9,14 For many people, donating creates a tension because the pure altruism payoff is not realized for awhile, but one faces the prospect of parting with money immediately. By introducing a delay via precommitment, the self-satisfaction is realized immediately at the precommitment, but the monetary cost (the actual donation) can be viewed with psychological distance, making one think more rationally and less impulsively about what the money can do.3,4,5,14
Thus precommitments help by getting the benefits upfront without having to immediately face the costs, which shifts the nature of the choice to one we can do now and face the consequences later, which comes more naturally to ourselves when making choices.2,3,4,5,14
Additionally, precommitments create a cost of backing out which, when compared with the minimal cost of complying with the precommimtent, seems not worth it. Thus precommiments can almost be considered “inverse procrastionation”, since they flip the scenario on us and make us procrastinate on undoing our precommitment, even if we feel inclined to.14
Precommitments work to reliably motivate yourself to solve problems of impulsiveness and “weakness of will”, helping you do something you would not have otherwise been able to do. It’s a weird quirk of our psychology that we have to deal with akrasia and have to “trick” ourselves into doing something we really, in the end, want to do all along. It mainly comes from our nature, for right or for wrong, as impulsive hyperbolic discounters – of valuing the immediate present much more than the future.
Precommitment is rooted in inversing the impulsiveness and getting it to work for you, by setting up an immediate cost for not performing the long-term action. Furthermore, precommitment allows one to gain the benefits of self-satisfaction without having to immediately face any costs. Lastly, precommitments help create the psychological distance needed to get over more automatic and immediate feelings.
Donating is one of these actions that is hard to do, especially in a structured way. But by making a public commitment to it that creates some social cost to you for backing out, it becomes a lot easier to keep up the habit. As most GivingWhatWeCan members can attest, skimming off the 10% of income to a top charity is not only second-nature, but fun. And all it took was a little precommitment.
(Note: Links are to PDF files.)
1: I owe this analogy, and some of the precommitment research references, to Luke Meulhauser’s “Optimal Philanthropy for Human Beings”.
2: Lowenstein, George and Richard H. Thaler. 1989. “Anomlies: Intertemporal Choice”. Journal of Economic Perspectives 3 (4): 181-193.
3: Streich, Phillip and Jack S. Levy. 2007. “Time Horizons, Discounting, and Intertemporal Choice”. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (2): 199-222.
4: Trope, Yaacov and Nira Liberman. 2003. “Temporal Construal”. Psychological Review 10 (3): 403-421. American Psychological Association.
5: Steel, Piers. 2007. “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure”. Psychological Bulletin 133 (1): 65-94. American Psychological Assocation.
6: I owe some of the procrostination research references to Luke Muelhauser’s “How to Beat Procrostination”.
7: Elfenbein, Daniel W., and Brian McManus. 2010. “A Greater Price for a Greater Good? Evidence That Consumers Pay More for Charity-Linked Products”. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2 (2): 28–60.
8: Ariely, D. and K. Wertenbroch. “Procrostination, Deadlines, and Preformance: Self-Control by Precommitment”. Psychological Science 13 (3): 219-224.
9: Harbaugh, William T., Ulrich Mayr, and Daniel R. Burghart. 2007. “Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations”. Science Magazine 316: 1622-1625.
10: Ankin, Laura B.; et al. 2010. “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal”. National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper #16415.
11: Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. 2008. “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness”. Science 319: 1687-1688.
12: Giné, Xavier, Dean Karlan, and Jonathan Zinman. 2010. “Put Your Money Where Your Butt Is: A Commitment Contract for Smoking Cessation”. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2 (4): 213–35.
13: DellaVigna, Stefano and Ulrike Malmendier. 2006. “Paying Not to Go to the Gym”. American Economic Review 96: 694-719.
14: Breman, Anna. 2006.“Give More Tomorrow: A Field Experiment on Intertemporal Choice in Charitable Giving”. Stockholm School of Economics Working Paper.
15: Meyvis, Bennett, & Oppenheimer. 2010. “Precommitment to charity” in Oppenheimer & Olivola (eds.), The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity 35-48. Psychology Press.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally written for The GivingWhatWeCan Blog, a blog I occasionally write for, dedicated to discussing effective approaches to philanthropy. See “In Giving, It Pays to Precommit” over there for more comments.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.