I recently blogged about a website that allows people to bet with themselves on whether they will achieve certain weight loss goals. The smart minds behind the website, Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman, have provided an answer to the question I posed at the end of that post - are there any better uses to which we could put these kinds of commitment devices?
In turns out, they have already worked quite well in helping people quit smoking in a developing country context. The researchers carried out a randomized control trial wherein participants deposited money into a savings account and forfeited this money at the end of six months if they failed a nicotine test. (Surprise test visits followed at a later date.) Here's what they found:
The finding that a limited-time (6-month) commitment produces longer-term smoking cessation suggests that commitments can facilitate the formation of good habits. This in turn suggests that commitment contracts may be worth subsidizing if viable private markets fail to develop in some settings (due, e.g., to legal obstacles or externalities). In some cases commitment contracts could serve as a lower-cost substitute for, or low-cost complement to, conditional cash transfers.
To put it more bluntly, we're constantly at war with ourselves. At least in this example, I find it hard to agree with the criticism expressed against behavioral economists and their support for "libertarian paternalism." It's really a question of creating markets for these commitment devices, potentially supported by new technologies like the internet and mobile banking, all of which could give us a better chance to win the war with ourselves.