Fighting Akrasia: Incentivising Action

by G Gordon Worley III 1 min read29th Apr 200958 comments


Related To:  Incremental Progress and the Valley, Silver Chairs, Paternalism, and Akrasia, How a pathological procrastinator can lose weight

Akrasia can strike anywhere, but one place it doesn't seem to strike too often or too severely, assuming you are employed, is in the work place.  You may not want to do something, and it might take considerable willpower to perform a task, but unless you want to get fired you can't always play Solitaire.  The reason is clear to most working folks:  you have to do your job to keep it, and not keeping your job is often worse than performing an undesirable task, so you suck it up and find the willpower to make it through the day.  So one question we might ask is, how can we take this motivational method and put it to our own use?

First, let's look at the mechanics of the method.  You have to perform a task and some exterior entity will pay you unless you fail utterly to perform the task.  Notice that this is quite different from working for prizes, where you receive pay in exchange for performing a particular task.  Financially they may appear the same, but from the inside of the human mind they are quite different.  In the former case you are motivated by a potential loss, whereas in the later you are motivated by a potential gain.  Since losses carry more weight than gains, in general the former model will provide more motivation than the latter, keeping in mind that loss aversion is a statistical property of human thought and there may be exceptions.

This suggests that certain techniques will work better more often than others.  For example, if you run a website about rationality and need programming work done for it, you have a couple of options.  You can wait for someone to volunteer their time, you can offer a prize for implementing certain features for the site, or you can offer to pay someone to do it on the condition that if they don't meet certain deadlines they won't get paid or will be paid a lesser amount.  If you aren't so lucky as to have someone come along who will volunteer their time and do a fantastic job for free, you are faced with accepting mediocre free work, offering prizes, or paying someone.  Since prizes are usually inefficient, it appears that offering to pay someone is the best option, so long as you are able to stipulate that there will be no or reduced pay if the work is not done on time and to specification.

It's also important that the entity with the authority to implement the loss reside outside the self.  This is why, for example, a swear box works best if others are around to keep you honest (or if you're religious, believe that god is watching you):  the temptation to let yourself slide just-this-one-time is too great.  And this really comes back to an issue of akrasia:  you don't have to expend any willpower for someone else to implement a loss on your part, whereas you do to make yourself take a loss.

In what other ways can this method work?  Post in the comments further examples of applying loss aversion to overcome akrasia, with particular attention to details of the methods that can make or break them.