Published: 27/03/2012

Updated: 21/06/2023

Commitment device

The Battle Between Your Present And Future Self In a previous article, we talked about commitment devices and how they can help achieve hard to reach goals and make us commit to a defined behavior course. Aware of the importance of commitment devices, conferences have been held to discuss this aspect. Daniel Goldstein “The battle

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein

The Battle Between Your Present And Future Self

In a previous article, we talked about commitment devices and how they can help achieve hard to reach goals and make us commit to a defined behavior course. Aware of the importance of commitment devices, conferences have been held to discuss this aspect. Daniel Goldstein “The battle between your present and future self” conference is one of many. Daniel is a fun to listen speaker and uses easy to understand approaches to enable to understand the complicated dimensions of the commitment device.

The story of Odysseus and the Sirens

First he introduces the story of Odysseus and the Sirens from high school or junior high school. Where there was this hero, Odysseus, who’s heading back home after the Trojan War and he says: he’s standing on the deck of his ship, he’s talking to his first mate, and he’s saying, “Tomorrow, we will sail past those rocks, and on those rocks sit some beautiful women called Sirens. And these women sing an enchanting song, a song so alluring that all sailors who hear it crash into the rocks and die.” Now you would expect, given that that they would choose an alternate route around the Sirens, but instead Odysseus says, “I want to hear that song. And so what I’m going to do is I’m going to pour wax in the ears of you and all the men — stay with me — so that you can’t hear the song, and then I’m going to have you tie me to the mast so that I can listen and we can all sail by unaffected.” So this is a captain putting the life of every single person on the ship at risk so that he can hear a song.

And I’d like to think if this was the case, they probably would have rehearsed it a few times. Odysseus would have said, “Okay, let’s do a dry run. You tie me to the mast, and I’m going to beg and plead. And no matter what I say, you cannot untie me from the mast. All right, so tie me to the mast.” And the first mate takes a rope and ties Odysseus to the mast in a nice knot. And Odysseus does his best job playacting and says, “Untie me. Untie me. I want to hear that song. Untie me.” And the first mate wisely resists and doesn’t untie Odysseus. And then Odysseus says, “I see that you can get it. All right, untie me now and we’ll get some dinner.” And the first mate hesitates. He’s like, “Is this still the rehearsal, or should I untie him?” And the first mate thinks, “Well, I guess at some point the rehearsal has to end.” So he unties Odysseus, and Odysseus flips out. He’s like, “You idiot. You moron. If you do that tomorrow, I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead, every single one of the men will be dead. Now just don’t untie me no matter what.” He throws the first mate to the ground. This repeats itself through the night — rehearsal, tying to the mast, conning his way out of it, beating the poor first mate up mercilessly. Hilarity ensues.

What psychologists call a commitment device?

Tying yourself to a mast is perhaps the oldest written example of what psychologists call a commitment device. A commitment device is a decision that you make with a cool head to bind yourself so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a hot head. Because there’s two heads inside one person when you think about it. Scholars have long invoked this metaphor of two selves when it comes to questions of temptation. There is first, the present self. This is like Odysseus when he’s hearing the song. He just wants to get to the front row. He just thinks about the here and now and the immediate gratification. But then there’s this other self, the future self. This is Odysseus as an old man who wants nothing more than to retire in a sunny villa with his wife Penelope outside of Ithaca — the other one.

So why do we need commitment devices?

Well resisting temptation is hard, as the 19th century English economist Nassau William Senior said, “To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will.” If you set goals for yourself and you’re like a lot of other people, you probably realize it’s not that your goals are physically impossible that’s keeping you from achieving them, it’s that you lack the self-discipline to stick to them. It’s physically possible to lose weight. It’s physically possible to exercise more. But resisting temptation is hard.

The other reason that it’s difficult to resist temptation is because it’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let’s face it, the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams. So there’s this battle between the two selves that’s being fought, and we need commitment devices to level the playing field between the two.

He also describes the method he uses as commitment devices on himself: Now I’m a big fan of commitment devices actually. Tying yourself to the mast is the oldest one, but there are other ones such as locking a credit card away with a key or not bringing junk food into the house so you won’t eat it or unplugging your Internet connection so you can use your computer. I was creating commitment devices of my own long before I knew what they were. So when I was a starving post-doc at Columbia University, I was deep in a publish-or-perish phase of my career. I had to write five pages a day towards papers or I would have to give up five dollars.

And when you try to execute these commitment devices, you realize the devil is really in the details. Because it’s not that easy to get rid of five dollars. I mean, you can’t burn it; that’s illegal. And I thought, well I could give it to a charity or give it to my wife or something like that. But then I thought, oh, I’m sending myself mixed messages. Because not writing is bad, but giving to charity is good. So then I would kind of justify not writing by giving a gift. And then I kind of flipped that around and thought, well I could give it to the neo-Nazis. But then I was like, that’s worse and writing is good, and so that wouldn’t work. So ultimately, I just decided I would leave it in an envelope on the subway. Sometimes a good person would find it, sometimes a bad person would find it. On average, it was just a completely pointless exchange of money that I would regret. Such it is with commitment devices.

That was a short segment from the aspiring conference of Daniel. If you want to know what happened next and get advices of how exactly commitment devices work, watch the video below.

Author: Ortwin Oberhauser

BSc Applied Computer Science
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