3.5 A Bestiary of Commitment Devices

Devices that help us keep commitments

As described in a prior post, we are good at making commitments to our future selves — to exercise, lose weight, revise our CVs, work on promotion, or undertake other faculty development activities — but poor at honoring these commitments.  When these broken commitments concern faculty development, they impede it.  What can be done?  So-called ‘commitment devices’ may help us honor our own commitments, often by exploiting what others might think about us if we break our commitments.

Although no device has yet been specifically developed to reinforce commitment to faculty development, many existing devices, websites, or smartphone applications (http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors/). Their common features are:

  • Commitment to a specified goal
  • Regular reporting of progress towards the goal
  • Reinforcement, positive or negative depending on the progress report

Many apps reinforce by providing messages of praise or access to some reward, such as a joke or game. Others place more ‘skin in the game.’ In some cases the reinforcement is social: public exposure of one’s progress (or lack thereof) [coach.me (https://www.coach.me), HabitRPG (https://habitrpg.com)]. Friends can praise or criticize the user depending on the progress. BetterMe (http://www.bettermeapp.co) goes one step farther: public humiliation. It automatically shames the user on FaceBook if the goal is not met. In other cases the reinforcement is monetary: like StikK (described in a previous post or here), Beeminder (https://www.beeminder.com) and 21Habit (http://www.21habit.com) charge for unmet goals. Write or Die (http://writeordie.com), intended to eliminate writers’ block, deletes text if writing is insufficient. Aherk (http://aherk.com) automatically publishes an embarrassing photo to FaceBook if the goal is unmet. HabitRPG and Carrot both ‘torture’ an avatar if the user fails, and Carrot delivers verbal abuse directly to the user. The thesis of Pavlok (http://pavlok.com) is that, something like in Quitters, Inc., the user will self-administer electrical shocks of increasing severity in response to failure.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has popularized a commitment device that plays upon another Achilles heel of System 1: loss aversion (https://shakeout.wordpress.com/?s=seinfeld). We hate losing what we have. Seinfeld places a red X on a 365-day wall calendar for each day he writes a joke. Once he creates a chain of red Xs, the prospect of breaking the chain and losing it keeps him writing day after day. Electronic versions such as Commit, Chains, and Don’t Break the Chain are available.

A problem with many of these commitment devices is that they rely on the user to report progress accurately. To help users or their social network remember to report, FollowUp.cc (https://followup.cc) can be set to badger a target until a response is received. Human reporters do cheat or exaggerate, however. Some of these apps or sites can automatically capture the user’s progress without any need for a human to report. Beeminder, for example, can receive data from writing, fitness, coding, learning, and alarm clock apps, including https://www.zapier.com, which claims to be able to define an event in more than 300 apps and report it. BetterMe can interact with a smartphone’s GPS to document that the user (or the phone, at least) visits the gym or any other preset location.

A second problem is that the trigger of the smartphone, the arriving email/text signal, or the need to check email may interfere with the best of intentions and require a special commitment device to be overcome. In fact, the classical (literally) example of a commitment device overcame the Sirens of mythology, whose irresistible song lured sailors to their deaths. Knowing of this peril, Ulysses had his crew place wax in their ears so they could not hear the song. Wax has been updated for the 21st Century. Apps (e.g., SelfControl, http://selfcontrolapp.com, among others) can be programmed to deny access to email or designated websites for a pre-set interval while the user works towards a faculty development goal. Alternatively, RescueTime (https://www.rescuetime.com) can be configured to define and monitor ‘productive’ vs. ‘unproductive’ activities on a computer and automatically report the results to Beeminder.

Sometimes these electronic commitment devices fail anyway. At least in the realm of physical fitness, nothing yet surpasses a human personal trainer (http://nyti.ms/16RJidd) or coach. Is this true for career development? If so, options abound. One can contract with (e.g., https://www.taskrabbit.com; https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome ), recruit, or assign an individual to remind you to work on promotion until you do [some individuals will do this for free; they are called ‘parents’]. While athletic, performance, and ‘life’ coaches may already be familiar, there are academic career coaches too (https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/reporter/july2013/349868/leadership.html, http://www.facultydiversity.org, http://www.janetbickel.com). Not only can they reinforce commitment, they can provide expert advice. Such coaches are not inexpensive, but then again cost can be a substantial instrument of commitment.


√   Try applying ONE of the above to your faculty development efforts, whether on behalf of others or yourself.  Just one. [If you try more, your activation energy will be so great as to work against you.]  It might be helpful.  It might not be.  The only guarantee is: if you don’t try one, it will never help you.

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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