Commitment Devices And The Hard Problem Of Getting People To Take Care Of Themselves

Jodi Beggs brings us the amazing case of the alarm clock that chews up your money if you don’t wake up on time:

This is an example of what’s known in the trade as a “commitment device.” It may be the case that at Time A you want it to be the case that at Time B you’ll want to do X, but you fear that at Time B what you’ll actually want to do is Y. A commitment device like an alarm clock that devours a $100 bill can help ensure that the Time B version of you will want to do what the Time A version of you wants him to want to do.

It’s a kind of a silly example, but in rich countries a lot of our most serious problems take this form. When people make decisions about how much money to save or what food to eat or how much to exercise or whether or not to smoke they don’t equally weight the interests of their current selves and future versions of themselves. Consequently, as people get older they more and more suffer from the maltreatment they received at the hands of earlier versions of themselves. And we count on the public sector to rush in with things like Social Security and Medicare. But Social Security’s benefits are actually quite meager for the vast majority of people, and know amount of health care services is as useful as not having health problems in the first place. People who find better ways to help us become better custodians of our future selves will be doing the world a lot of good.