Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I'm Quitting Starbucks . . . sort of . . . Commitment Strategies

My type-writer is thumping under the glow of the Starbucks Siren (featured below). This new year will usher many changes for Mary and I, with her finishing the grueling second year of medical school and myself beginning the flummoxing first year of an economics PhD. One large change will be in our budget since students earn significantly less money than employees, and we both agreed ---Starbucks is out.

In the morning when I walk by Strozier Library, there is a pull or draw to Starbucks, much like the tractor beam for the Death Star or the Siren's call from Greek Mythology. Pastries, Lattes, and Syrups, I love it all. But, they cost money, not to mention there inability to aid me in losing weight. How can I walk by everyday while the smell of espresso wafts to Landis Green? Self-Control or Commitment Strategies.

My desire to stiff-arm Starbucks brought to mind an important economic problem: commitment strategies. In the Odyssey the main character Odysseus ties himself to the mast to prevent the the seduction of the siren's call. What mast do I have? None. I will use self-control which is a topic for another day.

Commitment strategies or what are sometimes called "commitment devices" are those in which we make  decisions today which prevent ourselves from taking some future action when the desire will be overwhelming. When co-signing is required on checks that is a form of commitment. When academic journals become transparent in their reviewing process they allow scrutiny which commits them to faster turnaround times. Transparency in nonprofit organizations is like a commitment device to be a good steward. People develop accountability partners to keep them committed to a certain course of action.

Commitment strategies can also take on nuclear proportions. Probably the best expositor of commitment strategies was Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling. In his Nobel Prize speech "An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima" he said,

What nuclear weapons have been used for, effectively, successfully, for sixty years has not been on the battlefield nor on population targets: they have been used for influence.

That is, a nuclear weapon commits one country to respect the sovereignty of another country. This is not my area of expertise; however, I do know that Schelling, an economist, made quite an impression on people in foreign affairs with his ideas.

There you have it, commitment strategies can be small things like not buying potato chips at the store to prevent later consumption -or- they can have nuclear implications.

I'm sort of quitting Starbucks because I've decided not to buy frequently, rather only on special occasions, or while travelling. This may seem somewhat flaky. But, if I get into real trouble with self-control, I might get innovative with a commitment strategy.

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