Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pain, Pleasure and Thomas Schelling

For positive performance there are other tactics, some quite opposite to those for abstention. For example, breaking a large task, such as a Ph.D. thesis, into small pieces to make the goals more proximate and the magnitudes less intimidating, even setting time limits rather than piecework goals, works for some people. Kafka’s “Great Wall of China” required motivating people toward a task that could not be completed in their lifetimes; learning a new language, or a new athletic game, eventually entails a long hike on a seemingly infinite plateau. Round-number targets help motivate the joggers; and if there is no unique distance between two miles and five to offer an intermediate goal some runners joyfully discover the metric system with its handy five-kilometer distance. Even the weakness that takes the form of discounting the future- actually, more like averting one’s gaze from the future- can be turned to account: medium-distance deadlines look so unthreatening that people welcome them, even plead for them, knowing that without them “today never comes” and the promised task will never be done, perhaps never started.

I have come across an interesting case in which three “people” seem to be involved- three of me or three of you. It is the offering of modest rewards or punishments, and it goes like this. The person tells himself that he may sleep late and skip the exercise regime whenever he wishes but only on condition that he forgo lunch, or a favorite program, or a weekend skiing; alternatively he promises himself that every day that he gets up early he can watch five innings of baseball on the tube. Now, this scheme works only on two conditions. First, that the reward or punishment be potent enough to induce the desired behavior; and second, that the “somebody” who wants to turn off his alarm with his eyes closed will believe that another “somebody” will later have the fortitude to administer the punishment or deny the reward, when “they” are really all the same person. People told me it worked; I tried it and found that it could. If A lacks fortitude to get out of bed, B has the fortitude to do without because C laid down the law at an earlier time. If I cannot directly make myself get up at the alarm, I can nevertheless make myself inflict some worse privation later, contemplating which I get up with the alarm! It sounds like something a decision theorist would describe as “intransitive”.

-Choice and Consequence, Thomas C. Schelling, p. 79-80

Thomas Schelling receives medal from Tehran

Thomas C. Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior

Stern-omics, climate change and academics having fun

Thomas Schelling in action

StickK To Your Commitments- Levitt
Back when I was an undergraduate, I took a class from the future Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling. One day in class, he was talking about commitment problems: when you want to achieve a goal, but lack the self control to do it. As I recall, he offered two pieces of advice for those trying to lose weight. The first was to clean out the refrigerator and throw away anything you might want to eat in a moment of weakness. The second was to write a check for a substantial amount of money to the American Nazi Party, seal it up in a stamped envelope, and vow to drop it in the mail if you break your diet.

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