Motivation and Merciless Commitment Contracts

Com­mit­ment contracts

I have been us­ing com­mit­ment con­tracts (eg. Via Stickk and Bee­minder) for a while now with quite a high de­gree of suc­cess. The ba­sic idea is that you pre­com­mit to re­ward or pun­ish your­self for any­thing that you know you should do. Ex­am­ple: You want to lose weight. You define a cer­tain amount of weight that you want to lose over a cer­tain time pe­riod (like a pound a week). If you fail to do this, you lose a cer­tain amount of money—pay it to a char­ity, pay it to a com­mit­ment con­tract com­pany etc.. If you do lose the weight, you gain a pre­defined re­ward—eg. You buy your­self a nice hat or some­thing. Fairly sim­ple.

How­far should/​ can com­mit­ment con­tracts be taken?

It seems that for ev­ery­thing that any­one wants to do, but lacks the mo­ti­va­tion, there is always some­thing that would mo­ti­vate you to do it. Every­thing has a price right? And by mak­ing use of com­mit­ment con­tracts you can force your­self to choose be­tween pay­ing a huge price (fi­nan­cial or oth­er­wise) or do­ing what­ever you know you should do but don’t re­ally want to do, you can ul­ti­mately make your­self do that thing that you don’t want to do. What­ever it is. Maybe I’m get­ting ahead of my­self, but it seems like from that per­spec­tive, akra­sia is a pretty solved prob­lem?

Per­sonal Example

My situ­a­tion is this. I could do with a lit­tle bit more so­cial con­fi­dence. I don’t think I’m un­der­con­fi­dent re­ally, but more con­fi­dence would be good, which I think is prob­a­bly the same for most peo­ple. So I figured, it would prob­a­bly be a lot bet­ter to solve this prob­lem soon. The sooner the bet­ter.

I also figured there is a pro­cess I could go through to make this hap­pen. Lets say I make a list of all the things that cause me the most so­cial anx­iety, and also that wouldn’t be too dam­ag­ing for my so­cial life af­ter­wards (for ex­am­ple, start­ing fights with ran­dom strangers or walk­ing round my lo­cal city naked would be pretty high on the list, but I don’t want to be ar­rested or be known as “that crazy streaker” for the rest of my life. Of the top of my head, some ideas would be: go­ing to a city far away from my home and walk­ing up to peo­ple and pre­tend­ing to be crazy (knock­ing on peo­ple’s doors and ask­ing “have you seen my pet fish?” un­til I get the door shut in my face), go­ing to clubs and sit­ting in the mid­dle of the dance floor, or any­thing else which would be very so­cially painful to do.


So I could set up a com­mit­ment con­tract stat­ing I must do each of these ac­tivi­ties un­til my anx­iety has de­creased to half of its ini­tial level by the end of a cer­tain date. If I don’t do this then I pay x pound to y per­son. I’m pretty con­fi­dent that af­ter do­ing stuff like that for say, a whole week, I would have enough so­cial con­fi­dence for al­most all nor­mal pur­poses, and so­cial con­fi­dence would no longer be a prob­lem in my life.

Of course, these things make me feel a lit­tle bit ner­vous just when I think of my­self do­ing them, so I’d need a hell of a lot of mo­ti­va­tion to do them. I’d say a com­mit­ment con­tract worth a cou­ple of thou­sand pounds would do the trick. But of course, I don’t want to lose the con­tract. If I do, it would be a dis­aster, I would end up with a huge fi­nan­cial loss, and no in­crease in so­cial con­fi­dence. It seems to me then, that to in­crease the ex­pec­tancy of suc­cess, I should just in­crease the amount of money that I place on the bet. Lets say £10,000. I’d say for that amount of money, I’d al­most cer­tainly go through with the pro­ject. Still if I com­plete it, it would be an al­most un­bear­able loss, but be­cause of this, I reckon that my chances of suc­cess are high enough to mean that if I do the ex­pected util­ity calcu­la­tions of prob­a­bil­ity of failure vs. suc­cess and value of gains vs. losses, it is prob­a­bly a good bet to make.

Also, to make sure I don’t have the op­tion of back­ing out and can­cel­ling the con­tract, I could just set up some sort of le­gal con­tract, and have some­one else be the referee for whether I have suc­ceeded with the pro­ject.


When think­ing about this, I got quite anx­ious just by think­ing about mak­ing my­self do this. I re­al­ised, that this state of anx­iety would not be fun, and that hav­ing the threat of a huge loss like will prob­a­bly make you pretty mis­er­able in the long-term. This is why I don’t think this would be a great idea for some­thing like los­ing weight. It is a long term goal, and dur­ing that time you’d prob­a­bly be con­stantly scared shitless of los­ing all your money (you might end up los­ing the weight from stress). So over­all, it seems that this form of mer­ciless com­mit­ment con­tract would be best for the short term pro­jects—like a week long—which would min­imise the amount of stress/​ anx­iety of be­ing faced with two ex­tremely painful op­tions in the short term (los­ing a shit load of money or do­ing some­thing in­cred­ibly painful). As I was ex­pe­rienc­ing a bit of anx­iety by think­ing about all of this, I also figured that the best op­tion would be to spend as lit­tle time think­ing about mak­ing the con­tract as pos­si­ble, and just make the con­tract, be­cause dither­ing over it also causes stress/​ anx­iety.

At this point I got re­ally stressed and anx­ious be­cause I re­al­ised that what seemed to me to be the most ra­tio­nal op­tion was to make a huge com­mit­ment con­tract right then in the mo­ment to do ac­tivi­ties that would cause me a great deal of so­cial anx­iety over the next week. At this point I got too stressed, and re­al­ised that I couldn’t mo­ti­vate my­self to make my­self make the con­tract and de­cided not to think about any of this stuff for a while be­cause I’d man­aged to im­merse my­self into a state of sweaty paral­y­sis at the thought of mak­ing com­mit­ment con­tracts. I wish I could say that I didn’t do that, and that I ac­tu­ally made these con­tracts, and came out af­ter a very stress­ful week feel­ing so­cially in­vin­cible. But I didn’t.

Fic­tional Example

Then I re­al­ised that if I wish that I did do that, then I still think I have made the wrong choice. In the film Fight Club there is a scene where Tyler Dur­den goes to an off li­cence late at night, pulls the shop­keeper out into the car park, and puts a gun to his head. He then asks the poor guy what did you used to want to be when you grew up. The guy says a vet and he didn’t do it be­cause it was too hard. Tyler takes his wallet, with in­for­ma­tion about his ad­dress etc. and says that if the guy isn’t on the way to be­com­ing a vet in 6 weeks, he will kill him. (I think this is what hap­pened, I haven’t seen the film in a year or two). So in a way, I’m kind of en­vi­ous of that shop­keeper.

I’m not ac­tu­ally too sure about what Ex­is­ten­tial­ism is, but it seems like this is a bit of an ex­is­ten­tial crisis.


You may think that a) do­ing these things wouldn’t ac­tu­ally im­prove so­cial con­fi­dence enough b) that as the loss is too high, even a small risk wouldn’t be worth it c) that the stress you put your­self un­der wouldn’t make it worth it d) some other ob­jec­tion. You may be right… My point is, that for most peo­ple, if they think about it, there is some sort of com­mit­ment con­tract like this which would be worth them mak­ing.

So… erm… Any thoughts?