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?


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My situation is this. I could do with a little bit more social confidence.

A common suggestion with these sort of contracts is to do things you will succeed at in order to get used to succeeding. If you say "I will either lose $100 or ask out the person I like," and then you don't ask them out, then you end up $100 poorer and less confident than you were before. (This is a pretty big risk for a confidence building measure!)

Compare to something like "I will either lose $100 or smile at the person I like this week." Likely to succeed, grow a bit, and be ready to step things up a bit next time.

When thinking about this, I got quite anxious just by thinking about making myself do this.

I also recommend seeing a professional, or getting a book devoted to anxiety alleviation. That seems like a tool much more precisely focused at getting you where you want to be.

When I think about these "precommitment contracts" I anticipate that I'd just fail anyway even if I signed up.
Generally, people make decisions on the margin, and so there should be some contract where making that contract will change you from not doing something to doing something. It does seem to have very different usefulness for different people, though.

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.

I think a completely objective goal would be better, e.g. "I must do each activity at least 5 times".

[-][anonymous]9y 4

There are a number of problems associated with this kind of forced commitment :

(1) As Pj Eby says: "what pushes you forward holds you back". By using fear as motivator, you activate the "pain brain", which is triggered to run away from problems, instead of the "gain brain", which is directed towards success.

(2) Forcing yourself to solve one problem will often lead you to neglect other important stuff, or make you solve the problem in a way that fits the definition that you hav... (read more)

Thank you for writing this, especially for the links. I was immediately thinking about P.J.Eby while reading the article. Motivating oneself through fear could work for a simple physical activity where no thinking is involved, but otherwise, fear freezes the brain. And social activities require some brain work. I also had a bad feeling about increasing social skills by doing weird things. (Such as: asking stranger about time when you have a watch, or sitting on the floor in the dancing room.) This could be a test of courage, but I think in long term it also reinforces the idea that social relationships are meaningless. -- How about doing something meaningful, something useful instead? Such as: actually helping people who need help. You will get human contact and you will feel good about yourself; thus, putting these two things together, you will feel good about human contact... and at that point developing social skills will be easier. So my advice (I am not sure it is a good advice, just a first idea) would probably be: "Find some volunteer organization and tell them you are willing to do some work for them, under condition that the work includes social activities (so you wouldn't for example just sit at home and make a new website for them). Some organization may have some meaningful work for you. And then you would have real social contacts, not just some meaningless acts of courage." Reinforcement must be done carefully, because it is too easy to reinforce something we actually didn't want to. Generally, any kind of punishment is probably wrong because as a side effect it also punishes (1) noticing that we are doing something wrong, and (2) trying to self-improve in general.

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.

I think it's much better to commit to do specific activities then to commit to decreasing your anxiety by half. You don't want to have to think to much about what do when you are faced with your exercises. You want to just do them.

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 so

... (read more)
Actually 3 sounds easier than 2 -- people will think you suspect your watch is off and you want to adjust it, where in 2 (assuming that they notice your watch) they may think that you just want to bother them for no particular reason, or that you're so distracted that you don't even remember you're wearing a watch.
It could very well be that there are people for whom 2 is easier than 3. When it comes to social confidence different people have different issues. The exercises had that order in the source from which I took them. For myself 3 was much harder than 2. The reaction I got on day 1 didn't differ much than the reaction I got on day 2. Most of the time people don't care that much about yourself. If you ask them for the time they either don't want to spend any time, don't have a clock or they do the easy thing of just giving you the time.

Some responses seem to be saying that a better tactic would be to train social confidence by performing smaller more manageable actions/ goals rather than aiming for insanely high goals in a very short time span. For example if you create with a graded heirarchy of situations/ actions which induce social anxiety, then you can start by performing the actions that you have rated the lowest, and once you feel comfortable with those actions, work your way up.

This is the approach I've been using so far. For me the method has been working ok, but the main probl... (read more)

I used to think that I should drink olive oil to gain weight. I want to gain weight and 100g of olive oil equals roughly 800kcal. The problem is that I upped the amount I drank to fast over the days and felt nauseous. As a result my body learned to feel nauseous when drinking olive oil and I can now drink less than I could before I tried to train myself to drink it. The same thing is also possible with social goals. Some people can develop a phobia if you are under too much stress. Another thing that could happen is that they surpress emotions which isn't that healthy. If those goals are to low than you could look into medium sized goals that can be achieved with a medium sized contract.
3[comment deleted]9y
[-][anonymous]9y 3

What you're dealing with is known as an ugh field around here.

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.

Why do you believe this is true?

I've never use stickk or beeminder but I have made commitments in life and what I've found is that committing myself to do something is a good way to do that thing but that's about it. For instance, I signed up for a marathon and fear of failure made me go out and train. I did the marathon and then stopped running a lot. If I want to start running a decent number of miles/week again I'll probably have to sign up for another marathon. Now, some fraction of people will probably sign up for a marathon, start running a lot, realize that they love it, and reorg... (read more)

[-][anonymous]9y 2

going to clubs and sitting in the middle of the dance floor

That'd probably get you thrown out of the club by the bouncers.

I think it probably results in a bouncher coming to you and asking if everything is all right. That probably a good moment to tell them that you have to go to the toilet and move there. Lock yourself in the toilet. Once you come out, should they ask you tell them that everything is alright again and don't sit down on the floor again.
Yes; now that I remember about that, I once responded to a bouncer calling me out (though the thing I had done was different than sitting on the floor) that way. (But bouncers are less friendly in certain places than in others, IME.)
Unless peirce is interested in going back to the clubs, that sounds like it could make the activity even better (from a getting-over-social-anxiety perspective).
Depending on peirce's psychology, doing something in a club and being thrown out might be analogue to cautiously stepping out of your house after staying there for months for fear of spiders and ending up covered in tarantulas [].
Part of what such exercises are about is demostrating yourself that you have agency. If you lose control over the situation in a way that you didn't expect beforehand and people disapprove of you in that way it doesn't encourage yourself to see your own agency.

Personally, I upvoted this, but I will warn you that you may be getting an abnormal amount of downvotes, not because of the content, but because of the formatting. People around here are extremely picky about non standard formatting. I think that actually your current formatting is just fine and perfectly reasonable, but I am sure that there are some that will get annoyed by it. It's slightly silly, but I do recommend that you change this to the standard formatting if you don't want random downvotes.

Ok thanks for the heads up. I tried to change the formatting, but I've either made it worse or nothing has changed. How could I go about reformatting the post? Sorry from the not very computer literate.
I've fixed the formatting. You can do this by copy-pasting the text into the article editor from a plain text editor (that doesn't support formatting) and then adding the necessary formatting (such as headings and italics) in the article editor. Alternatively, you can edit the HTML source by clicking "Edit HTML Source" button in the article editor, and remove all nonstandard formatting tags from there.
Thanks very much
I'm going to snarkily suggest that LWers start reading articles via Screen Reader to reduce the relevance of formatting. It may or may not be possible to train such that text to speech can be understood faster than reading visually (I've only heard extremely vague anecdotes on this, but it'd be interesting to test). For future reference, how does LW article formatting work, and what is standard? I physically can't see to tell the difference if ever I find reason to post an article, and would rather avoid annoying people over something like that.
I don't think this is likely. Standard human speech is about 150 wpm, and while people can get up to listening to at 2-3 times that, it takes significant practice. I get the impression that many more people can read at 300 wpm than can listen at 300 wpm, and so on up the scale. Listening is also very unforgiving to attention lapses or sections that deserve careful thought, whereas when reading normally it is easy to pause or 'rewind.' My experience has been that composing articles on the "create new article" page leads to standard formatting, and that if you copy text in from another source you need to be careful to scrub it of formatting first. (One way that may work for that is to paste it into the html source, but that can lead to other problems. Copying it into a text file editor like notepad seems like a better approach.)

My issue with commitment contracts is that I have no reason to believe they will do anything but make me miserable, and I don't have enough money to risk. If I precommit to pay $5 if I fail at a certain task, I have no reason to believe that at the end of the given time period, I won't be short 1% of my total wealth and worse off emotionally.

I find it interesting that you think there is no reason to believe that a financial incentive would change your behavior.
Elsewhere [] he sounds like he tried some other kind of negative incentives and it didn't work.
Value of information. Unless you have literally zero interest in finding out, there should be some sum of money, possibly less than $5, equal to the value of learning what you will actually do when you set up a contract for yourself.
That's tricky. The experience of setting up a commitment contract for 0.0001% of your wealth is unlikely to provide any learning as to what you will actually do in response to a commitment contract of 5% (or 50%) of your wealth.

I've never attempted a commitment contract but I don't really care for them in principle. I don't really want to find a way to force myself to do things that I don't want to do. What I really want much more than that is to figure out how to become comfortable doing the things that I'm not comfortable doing.

To take your example, if you are uncomfortable socially it is because you have an underlying belief that these social situations could be very harmful or painful for you. That belief is most likely due to stuff that really did happen to you. You pro... (read more)

have you ever considered that a lack of social confidence is actually just a manifestation of humility and maybe it is a good thing? That's how I look at it, anyway.

I've considered it, but having more social confidence at least in the way I've been using the term in this post, seems to me to be generally a good thing. I recognise that it is not good to be overly confident in your abilities to the point that you are unrealistic and delusional about them. But I'm more talking about training the ability to engage is social situations which you find uncomfortable, and I see type of social confidence as generally a good thing because it opens up your options more, and means that social fear acts as a smaller constraint on your actions.
I'm not sure whether the kind of confidence that involved in asking "have you seen my pet fish?" is the kind that's generally a good thing. It's not the kind of action where it's very valuable to be able to perform it. It might make sense to train on something that doesn't have negative externalities to other people.
Yes, but some people are humbler than is warranted. []

One of the tactics I have heard is to pay a friend a certain amount at the start of the night. Each new person or group you start talking to they give you come of the money back. What ever is left you friend gets to keep.

I'm not sure that adding more stress would help overcome social anxiety but if you think it will work then it is probably worth a trial run of $150 of $15 per group you say hi to - that must be done in one night. It it works you can start upping the total number of group you have to talk to but keeping the $150 the same.

This is getting dangerously close to 'self-help' territory.

Commitment contracts may be great for tangible things like losing weight or whatever, but I can't imagine it would work for things like this.

If you genuinely have a problem with social anxiety that is disrupting your daily life, it might be best to see a professional about it.

I'm really glad this was the first comment. While reading the post I kept thinking, 'OK, extreme commitment contracts are interesting, but why did peirce pick such a bad example? I'm pretty sure social anxiety doesn't work like that for most people.' Then I got to the conclusion. Really, it doesn't even have to be disrupting your daily life. When someone says "I want to be less anxious," seeing a professional is way above merciless commitment to exposure therapy on the list of obvious things to try. Commit to doing that, if you want. (And if you're still really into the exposure therapy, start with making eye contact with strangers in public and maybe smiling. Build up small successes first, and it'll be easier to avoid the paralysis of feeling bad about bad feelings.)
What sort of professional do you see if you want to do some minor self-help thing like improve social skills?
Plus points if you can cite peer reviewed studies that indicate that said professional is effective at increasing people social skills.
Cognitive-Behavioral therapy (CBT) is very effective and there is much published research on it; I suggest you have a look (peaigr has linked a meta-study below).
I think under the definition of CBT of the study that peaigr mentions peirce, he's already engaging in CBT when doing his exposure therapy. The study also says: It basically provides no evidence that seeking a professional has an effect that's better than what peirce is already doing. Furthermore the study is about raising the confidence of people who have a low baseline and peirce says that he already has an above average baseline. The studies also seem to be measuring decreased social anxiety as a goal and don't measure the outcome of successful social interactions.
We're talking about social anxiety, not social skills; they are anticorrelated but one is not the same thing as the lack of the other. Someone might have no particular reluctance in interacting with others but still be unfun to be around (low social anxiety, low social skills), and someone else might instinctively flinch from social interactions but if they somehow overcome that (e.g. by drinking alcohol, or by the interaction being initiated by the other person, or by being already friends with them) their company is very enjoyable (high social anxiety, high social skills).
The ability to start social interactions is a social skill. It's not the only one that matter but it's a valuable one. The goal that peirce persues seems to be to social skillbuilding. Tackling anxiety is just a means to get there.
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