Motivation and Merciless Commitment Contracts

by peirce 4 min read8th Aug 201368 comments


Commitment contracts

I have been using commitment contracts (eg. Via Stickk and Beeminder) for a while now with quite a high degree of success. The basic idea is that you precommit to reward or punish yourself for anything that you know you should do. Example: You want to lose weight. You define a certain amount of weight that you want to lose over a certain time period (like a pound a week). If you fail to do this, you lose a certain amount of money - pay it to a charity, pay it to a commitment contract company etc.. If you do lose the weight, you gain a predefined reward - eg. You buy yourself a nice hat or something. Fairly simple.

Howfar should/ can commitment contracts be taken?

It seems that for everything that anyone wants to do, but lacks the motivation, there is always something that would motivate you to do it. Everything has a price right? And by making use of commitment contracts you can force yourself to choose between paying a huge price (financial or otherwise) or doing whatever you know you should do but don't really want to do, you can ultimately make yourself do that thing that you don't want to do. Whatever it is. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but it seems like from that perspective, akrasia is a pretty solved problem?

Personal Example

My situation is this. I could do with a little bit more social confidence. I don't think I'm underconfident really, but more confidence would be good, which I think is probably the same for most people. So I figured, it would probably be a lot better to solve this problem soon. The sooner the better.

I also figured there is a process I could go through to make this happen. Lets say I make a list of all the things that cause me the most social anxiety, and also that wouldn't be too damaging for my social life afterwards (for example, starting fights with random strangers or walking round my local city naked would be pretty high on the list, but I don't want to be arrested or be known as "that crazy streaker" for the rest of my life. Of the top of my head, some ideas would be: going to a city far away from my home and walking up to people and pretending to be crazy (knocking on people's doors and asking "have you seen my pet fish?" until I get the door shut in my face), going to clubs and sitting in the middle of the dance floor, or anything else which would be very socially painful to do.


So I could set up a commitment contract stating I must do each of these activities until my anxiety has decreased to half of its initial level by the end of a certain date. If I don't do this then I pay x pound to y person. I'm pretty confident that after doing stuff like that for say, a whole week, I would have enough social confidence for almost all normal purposes, and social confidence would no longer be a problem in my life.

Of course, these things make me feel a little bit nervous just when I think of myself doing them, so I'd need a hell of a lot of motivation to do them. I'd say a commitment contract worth a couple of thousand pounds would do the trick. But of course, I don't want to lose the contract. If I do, it would be a disaster, I would end up with a huge financial loss, and no increase in social confidence. It seems to me then, that to increase the expectancy of success, I should just increase the amount of money that I place on the bet. Lets say £10,000. I'd say for that amount of money, I'd almost certainly go through with the project. Still if I complete it, it would be an almost unbearable loss, but because of this, I reckon that my chances of success are high enough to mean that if I do the expected utility calculations of probability of failure vs. success and value of gains vs. losses, it is probably a good bet to make.

Also, to make sure I don't have the option of backing out and cancelling the contract, I could just set up some sort of legal contract, and have someone else be the referee for whether I have succeeded with the project.


When thinking about this, I got quite anxious just by thinking about making myself do this. I realised, that this state of anxiety would not be fun, and that having the threat of a huge loss like will probably make you pretty miserable in the long-term. This is why I don't think this would be a great idea for something like losing weight. It is a long term goal, and during that time you'd probably be constantly scared shitless of losing all your money (you might end up losing the weight from stress). So overall, it seems that this form of merciless commitment contract would be best for the short term projects - like a week long - which would minimise the amount of stress/ anxiety of being faced with two extremely painful options in the short term (losing a shit load of money or doing something incredibly painful). As I was experiencing a bit of anxiety by thinking about all of this, I also figured that the best option would be to spend as little time thinking about making the contract as possible, and just make the contract, because dithering over it also causes stress/ anxiety.

At this point I got really stressed and anxious because I realised that what seemed to me to be the most rational option was to make a huge commitment contract right then in the moment to do activities that would cause me a great deal of social anxiety over the next week. At this point I got too stressed, and realised that I couldn't motivate myself to make myself make the contract and decided not to think about any of this stuff for a while because I'd managed to immerse myself into a state of sweaty paralysis at the thought of making commitment contracts. I wish I could say that I didn't do that, and that I actually made these contracts, and came out after a very stressful week feeling socially invincible. But I didn't.

Fictional Example

Then I realised that if I wish that I did do that, then I still think I have made the wrong choice. In the film Fight Club there is a scene where Tyler Durden goes to an off licence late at night, pulls the shopkeeper out into the car park, and puts a gun to his head. He then asks the poor guy what did you used to want to be when you grew up. The guy says a vet and he didn't do it because it was too hard. Tyler takes his wallet, with information about his address etc. and says that if the guy isn't on the way to becoming a vet in 6 weeks, he will kill him. (I think this is what happened, I haven't seen the film in a year or two). So in a way, I'm kind of envious of that shopkeeper.

I'm not actually too sure about what Existentialism is, but it seems like this is a bit of an existential crisis.


You may think that a) doing these things wouldn't actually improve social confidence enough b) that as the loss is too high, even a small risk wouldn't be worth it c) that the stress you put yourself under wouldn't make it worth it d) some other objection. You may be right… My point is, that for most people, if they think about it, there is some sort of commitment contract like this which would be worth them making.


So… erm… Any thoughts?