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

3. Happy New Year!

Why it’s easy to commit to faculty development activities, and difficult to follow through on these commitments

The future isn’t what it used to be.  Yogi Berra

Why we procrastinate

Happy New Year! Every day is New Years Day because every day we resolve to do better or commit to change. In academic-world, we resolve to work on promotion, improve our research and teaching, provide better mentorship, achieve better work-life balance, etc. And, at least for New Year’s resolutions, more than 90% fail[1].   Why? And what could we do to reduce that failure rate to, let’s say, 85%?

System 1 responds instinctively and rapidly to the information before it.

System 2 orchestrates rational but slow thought, and accommodates non-obvious information. It is often subordinate to System 1.

System 1 copes with more information than System 2 can. It does so by jumping to conclusions. These jumps have predictable rules and trajectories.

These features can be exploited to develop academic faculty.

First things first: why? The dominant portion of our minds focuses on the here and now: what you see is all there is. When our ‘System 2’ manages to claim the stage, it is quite adept at planning our future self, including making resolutions. But when the time comes to keep these resolutions, System 2 is no longer in control. At that time, as Yogi Berra stated, the future isn’t what it used to be.  Instead, we (or, more properly our System 1s) are enslaved by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’[2]

Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.   …We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task seldom must be done today or even this week: …these projects can wait.   But the urgent tasks call for instant action endless demands pressure every hour and day. …The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

As explained, ‘the urgent’ is the descendant of ancestral threats or opportunities that could be ignored only at great cost. And today ‘the urgent’ sometimes really is urgent. If you are an academic physician, your patients suffer or die if you do not attend to them, as do research programs, funding streams, and education. Disappointing one’s dean, chair, or chief by failing to complete a promised task on time has consequences too. But putting off ‘the important’ until tomorrow each successive day is a recipe for academic disaster. Thoughtful deliberation, the province of System 2, is clearly able to schedule tasks in a reasonable way (and refuse impossible tasks) so as to optimize one’s activities. But System 2 ordinarily cannot resist System 1 as it enforces the tyranny of the urgent.

Commitment devices

So System 2 needs help! How? The author Stephen King knows. He tells the story[3] of one Richard Morrison, a heavy smoker who wants to stop and inadvertently but irrevocably signs on with “Quitters, Inc.”   As Morrison discovers to his chagrin, it is a ‘charitable’ foundation endowed by a mobster, Three Fingers Minelli, whose dying wish was to ‘get even’ with the tobacco-induced lung cancer that killed him. Quitters, Inc. has not a 12-step program, but a 10-step program — of increasingly intense punishments delivered to one’s family and self, from electric shocks to severe beatings to the breaking of arms and worse. As Morrison’s ‘counselor’ explains: “We don’t bother with propaganda here, Mr. Morrison. Questions of health or expense or social grace. We have no interest in why you want to stop smoking. We are pragmatists.”   And it works. As the counselor explains: “Forty per cent of our clients never have to be disciplined at all – and only ten per cent have more than three falls from grace.” 98% quit. And what of the other 2%, asks Morrison of the counselor?   The counselor opens one of the desk drawers and lays a silenced .45 on the desk.   He smiles into Morrison’s eyes. “But even the unregenerate two per cent never smoke again. We guarantee it.”

Morrison stops smoking.

Quitters, Inc. is a fictitious example of what psychologists call a ‘commitment device’. System 2, in consultation with one’s future self, puts in place something that keeps System 1 at bay and the tyranny of the urgent from thwarting long range plans. System 2 makes System 1 an “offer it can’t refuse”, so to speak. Not all commitment devices are as drastic as Quitters, Inc., however. In real life, commitment devices include:

  • Payroll deductions
  • Penalties for early withdrawal from an IRA
  • Asking a friend or a partner to dispose of desserts to avoid over-eating
  • Buying an expensive annual gym membership to encourage exercise
  • Taking a drug that makes an abused substance distasteful
  • Hiring a personal coach or trainer

and so on. In academia, the ‘tenure clock’ is sometimes an effective commitment device. So are deadlines, deans, chairs, and chiefs when they reinforce well thought-out plans.

In fact, we live in the golden age of commitment devices. Not only are they diverse and readily available, some of them cleverly exploit behavioral economics, social psychology, modern technology, and human nature for fun and profit.

StikK.com, for example. Users sign commitment contracts to achieve a goal, and then place stakes at risk. If the goal goes unachieved, the stakes go to a pre-designated charity.   Users can also designate a referee, a third party who decides if the goal has been achieved. Initially the designers worried that having the stakes go to charity would undermine the commitment. So users can also designate anti-charities. Here’s how this works. Suppose you want to incentivize your own submission of an NIH grant application. On stikK.com you put $1000 of your personal funds at risk ($100 if you are a student, or $1,000,000 if you are independently wealthy – whatever it takes). You have colleague agree to authorize return of the funds if and only if you submit the grant application by its due date. If you do not, the funds go to the anti-charity of your choice, whichever you find most personally distasteful, currently:

Americans United for Life

NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation

Nature Conservancy

The National Center for Public Policy Research

Freedom to Marry

Institute for Marriage and Public Policy

Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence

NRA Foundation

American Crossroads (Super PAC supporting Republican Party)

House Majority PAC (supporting House Democrats)

Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

[and, at least in principle, the New York Yankees fan club for Boston Red Sox fans, and the Green Bay Packers fan club for Chicago Bears fans]

As the site explains, “you’ll certainly work that much harder to ensure that your money never falls into the wrong hands.”

While it is unfortunate to end on a negative note, the mother of all commitment devices is being denied academic reappointment for failure to meet goals. Enough said!

Using System 1 against itself

One of the Achilles heels of System 1 is that it is exquisitely sensitive to what other people think or do. ‘Social framing’ is one of the major heuristics it uses to facilitate its work. Seeing other people carrying umbrellas invokes in your System 1 an irresistible urge to carry one too; after all, they must know something you don’t. System 1 strives for the approval of your peers; their disapproval, scorn, derision, shame, embarrassment before them, and public failure are deeply aversive.   System 1s will do practically anything to avoid public shaming. Clever allies of System 2 can exploit this tendency, as in commitment devices that make public one’s progress towards a goal. FitBit and other fitness-tracking devices do so, for example, when they are configured to report daily to a public social networking site. It is one thing to slack off on an exercise regime, but quite another for your device to reveal this automatically to your friends, family, and peers, to your embarrassment. The opposite is true: if your friends and family commend you for continued exercise, you will be that much more motivated.

The other Achilles heel of System 1 is that, while it is focusing on the here and now, its guard is down. In this instance, System 2 is free of its dominance and able to commit to anything. If the commitment is sufficiently binding, when tomorrow becomes today System 1 will be unable to evade it. Just ask Richard Morrison.

What might be useful is a FitBit or Quitters, Inc. for academic performance and faculty development! Although none has yet been specifically developed towards this end, many existing devices, websites, or smartphone applications could be repurposed to serve faculty development.  The next post will describe some.

Today is the first day of the next year of your life. Happy New Year!
√  What are your career development resolutions?
√  More importantly, what will you do to keep them? A few of us can keep our System 1s under control, but most cannot without help. Human nature and technology have conspired to provide this help. Why not accept it?
√  What are the career development resolutions of those you mentor, train, and support?
√  Do something to help them keep their resolutions.  If necessary, act as their commitment device.

[1] http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/

[2] Tyranny of the Urgent! by Charles E. Hummel. http://amzn.com/087784092Xhttp://amzn.com/087784092X

[3] Quitters, Inc. Published in Night Shift, by Stephen King. Anchor Books. http://amzn.com/0307743640

©Martin E. Feder 2015