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What do flying alarm clocks and Algebra II have in common?

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

Procrastination. And not in the way that you think.

As a scientist who studies behavior, I spend a lot of time thinking about, well, time. Now or later? Instant gratification or lasting satisfaction? Chocolate bar or apple? If you stop to notice, almost all of your daily decisions involve some sort of malicious tradeoff between satisfaction now and satisfaction later. You might think of yourself as a patient person, preferring to hold out for the big prize. Or like most of us, maybe you notice your own frustrating tendency to cave to the miniscule joys of solitaire, texting, or lollipop hammers. This is what behavioral scientists call “time preference.” Patient type? Wait for grand reward. Impatient type? Seize the moment!

…But there is a third category.

The third category is the type who just can’t make up their minds. Imagine the following situation: you get a voucher for an ice cream cone of your choice. It’s good for either 1 scoop 30 days from now, or 2 scoops in 31 days. Provided there’s no diet in question, most will hold out for the 2 scoops.

Imagine now, that the voucher is good either for 2 scoops tomorrow, or 1 scoop right now. The early option is starting to look good, right?

This preference “switch” from desiring the larger reward to desiring the quick one fascinated economists for some time. After all, both situations have precisely the same rewards, and even the same delay between reward times. The problem here is how to represent preferences with math. If you use the wrong kind of function, you might get the wrong ideas about how people make choices (that they don’t have problems dealing with temptation, for instance). For some time, economists used exponential functions to represent time preferences. Use this kind of function and impulsive behavior is assumed out of existence. More recently the “hyperbolic” function has been adopted, because it is far more realistic. Algebra II is the first time both types of functions are introduced to students, the kind that misrepresents people as oh-so-rational, as well as the more accurate impulsive version.

So why does the difference matter? Because people buy “commitment devices.” An alarm clock that flies away is a commitment device: a message from your past, goal-oriented self to your current, sleepy self that says, “I won’t let you hit snooze today.” A purely patient or impatient person would have no need for these. Choosing to go to a restaurant where you know they don’t have your favorite dessert is a commitment device. Giving your smartphone to your spouse while you work is a commitment device. There is even an open-source program called SelfControl: you put in the list of sites you want to avoid, and then start the timer. Is there a way to override it, in case you need to check your email? “Nope,” say the developers. “That’s the point.” Commitment devices are a way that the cool-minded, long-term-oriented you can rein in the future you that has a tendency to sabotage your own best interest.

Commitment devices go back as far as Greek mythology, when Ulysses, knowing he would be lured to the Sirens and his own doom if he heard their song, tied himself to the mast of his ship, so that he could hear their song without danger of making any bad decisions.

So, if you are a procrastinator, or you have a procrastinator in your life, rest assured you are not alone, and a well-tailored commitment device might be just the trick to get you to achieving your long-term goals.

Think you might be in the market for a commitment device and looking for ideas? Freakonomics writer Stephen J. Dubner can help.

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