Just say no – to marshmallows

This week I’ll be looking at self-control, something I have very little of when it comes to eating good food and spending money. These posts are inspired by Dan Ariely’s behavioural economics MOOC A Beginners Guide to Irrationality. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why people do what they do and why they won’t do what we as local government, health professionals and central government want them to do.

The problem with self-control is that it’s the difference between now and then – I really want that cake just now and the heart attack later seems so far away.

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We all have a present focus bias – the tendency to give more weight to our current environment or state. In the future we are all wonderful – next week we’ll start eating healthily and by next month we’ll have transformed into a gym bunny. But we never get to live in that future.We only live in the present.

So how do we get round this? Dan’s answer is reward substitution – using an alternative reward that is immediate and therefore more motivating. He came up with this idea when he was diagnosed with hepatitis. He was offered a treatment that would mean he had to self-inject once a week. If he didn’t have the treatment, although he felt OK now, he would be seriously ill in the future. He knew that an hour after the injection he would be violently sick for a few hours and feel rotten. Most of the other people on this treatment gave up after a few injections but Dan kept going. He loves watching films so on the way home from uni he would stop off at the video shop and hire a film. He would set up the room – covers on the couch, TV on, film loaded, remote control in reach, bucket and tissues close by – then give himself his injection. It was the films that were his reward and the thing that got him through his horrible treatment.

Can we use reward substitution to encourage eco-friendly behaviour?

Well, the problem with climate change is that it maximises human apathy. Why?

  1. It’s in the future
  2. It affects others first
  3. We don’t see its progression
  4. We don’t see a particular person suffering
  5. Individual efforts to mitigate are a drop in the rising ocean

We could encourage better environmental behaviour with the following rewards:

  • money
  • making the required behaviour easier than the normal behaviour
  • recognition
  • reputation

Gamers have devised many ways to motivate people, such as leader boards. Reward substitution can get us to act like we care about the world when all we really care about is our image.

Inflating the incentive with the principle of loss aversion may also work – pre-pay people then take the money away for non-compliant behaviour.

Regret is the comparison between where we are in life and where we could have been. Analysis of the podium photos from the Olympics shows that the gold winners smile most, closely followed by bronze and the least smiley are the silver winners because they can imagine what they could have done differently to win gold.

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What is happiness? We pick a reality and compare our lives to it. If that reality is better than our actual life we are miserable but if that reality is worse, we feel good.

The regret lottery – everyone gets a ticket but you can only claim our prize if you have been compliant.

Ulysses contracts

These are self-control contracts. With self-control contracts you:

  • know you will be tempted
  • bind your current self to prevent your future self from misbehaving

A great online version of this is Stickk where you set yourself goals and if you don’t meet them you give money to charity. If you really want to make sure you manage to reach them, set up donations to a charity you hate!

The importance of self-control

Self-control at a young age is highly predictive of self-control as an adult. In experiments tempting three-year-olds with marshmallows shows that self-control, even at that young age is predictive of success as an adult. The kids who couldn’t resist were more likely to flunk school, get involved with drugs and even end up in jail. But where does self-control come from? Is it a skill or are we born with it? When we distract ourselves from temptation we are more likely to resist. However when we are continually exerting self-control our ability to resist temptation weakens. This is called ego depletion.

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But how much does self-control depend on innate ability and how much relies on tricks we develop to enhance our abilities. How much does self-control suffer as we are tempted throughout the day and what role do rules play?

We live in a commercial world where companies want us to act now in a way that benefits them, not us in the long-term. This is only going to get worse as the commercial world gets more and more sophisticated and this makes Ulysses contracts super important.

Human mortality can be attributed to bad decisions. In the US in 1900 the percentage of deaths cause by bad life choices was only 10% – the rest were down to accidents and diseases caused by the environment such as diphtheria and cholera. In 2000 bad decisions caused 46% of deaths. This is because technology invents ways to help us kill ourselves for example obesity, diabetes, even texting while driving. Technological advances create more and more opportunities for us to succumb to temptation.

An example of Ulysses contracts being used in health was a drug abuse program in Denver. It attempted to help heroin addicts recover. It required them to write a self-incriminating letter to the person they did not want to find out about their habit and the letters would be sent out if the recovery agreement was violated. There was a three-week waiting period and after that most subjects complied with their contracts. However, the program had to be stopped because it violated human rights. Ulysses contracts must be binding to be effective – it’s human freedom versus the human temptation to do the wrong thing. It’s difficult to study Ulysses contracts because researchers are required to let participants leave a study if they want to.

We must find a balance between the amount of freedom we crave and the controls we need to shield us from temptation.


Tune of the week

Edith Piaf – Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

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