OPINION11 November 2011

Unleashing the power of self-contracting

Opinion Video

Committing to a course of action is easy. Sticking with it is hard. Crawford Hollingworth looks at some clever ways of getting people to change their behaviour for good.

More modern means of achieving the same thing are illustrated below, the key being to commit to a course of action when we are calm, cool and collected – in what we call the rational cold zone. But whatever we commit to, we also need the commitment device to work in an emotional hot zone filled with temptation, seduction and less rational behaviour.

If you’re a marketer, it’s well worth considering how you could tap into the power of self-contracting with penalties

There are sites such as stickK.com in which you take out a contract to lose weight, for example. These contracts or bets can have highly creative ‘straps’ like agreeing to donate money to something you hate if you fail to stick to the pledge.

But commitment mechanisms can get even more innovative. For those addicted to checking emails or social networks, there are now quite a few applications that block access to incoming and outgoing mail servers and certain websites for a predetermined length of time. Once set up, it is impossible to override the app, and even restarting your computer or deleting the application will do no good. You simply have to sit it out, going cold turkey in the hot zone. One of those, SelfControl, is available to downloadable here. Telia, a Swedish telecoms provider offers a similar application and has also set up internet-free zones across the country. I love this use of technology to fight technology.

The next example is a little more personal and indicative of the problems of social network addiction. Nudge blog reported the case of a teenage girl who tried unsuccessfully to avoid using Facebook during the week so asked her elder sister to change her Facebook password every Sunday night and to give the new password to her the following Friday night, and not before, so that she could concentrate properly on her schoolwork.

A more formal version of this sort of commitment device was launched by the University of Chicago and uses the BE concepts of commitment bias and loss aversion to get students to work. The ‘Write In’ programme accepts 20 students who pay $50 deposit at the start of the week for a desk space for four hours (including coffee and snacks) and commit to showing up at the library at 8.30am each day. On Friday, they get their money refunded and a completion t-shirt if they’ve attended every session in full. It’s popular among many students, especially those writing dissertations or final papers, so much so that the university is increasing the number of sessions. Chicago’s Law School is even setting up its own version – seven hours for three days straight.

Commitment devices can be cruel though, threatening to shame us if we break our commitment. The Dutch Anti-smoking Council designed a Facebook app to help people stop smoking. You set the date you want to quit, upload embarrassing photos of yourself to a special file, and nominate a friend who will have access to these and license to make them public if he/she ever catches you with a cigarette in your hands. Here is a video explaining the concept:

There are also apps to help us deal with our weaknesses in a drink-induced hot zone – Drunk Blocker, Bad Decision Blocker, Don’t Dial, Textalyzer or Stupid Phone Calls Blocker – all of which allow you to block certain numbers on your phone, mostly ex-boyfriends or girlfriends who you may end up calling 37 times when inebriated on a Saturday night. Some, like Stupid Phone Calls Blocker, ask you to solve basic maths equations which you may find tricky after several tequilas. Others ask you to nominate a time period to block numbers, like after last orders.

Commitment devices need not only be used for selfish reasons. Some, like the The Good Gym, have taken the concept further by adding a powerful social, altruistic element. The Good Gym commits runners to a daily jog by pairing them with isolated less-mobile people in their area who are often elderly. The paired runners jog to the house of their elderly partner to deliver milk, the paper or a small present, have a brief chat and are on their way again. As well as keeping people fit, The Good Gym sets out forge a social link and improve the quality of life for a large section of the community who suffer from loneliness and isolation. It is currently operating in Tower Hamlets, London, but hopes to expand.

If you’re a marketer, it’s well worth considering how you could tap into the power of self-contracting with penalties. Go on, beat yourself up over it.

Crawford Hollingworth is a founder of The Behavioural Architects