Sometimes, precommitment can actually have negative impacts on our behavior. While precommitment to a grocery delivery service might prevent you from spending more money on takeout, precommitment to a particular plan can make you lose out on other, sometimes better, opportunities. The commitment bias means that we tend to stick to behaviors we’ve committed to in the past, even if they no longer align with our updated preferences and desires, or begin to lead to negative outcomes.
For example, if you initially thought that being a productive student meant staying at the library until midnight every night until your final exams in four weeks, you might be surprised to realize after the first week that you are exhausted and not retaining any information. Instead of listening to your present needs, the commitment bias and your desire to save face (especially if you told other people about your plan) might cause you to stick to our non-beneficial behavior.
Moreover, the sunk-cost fallacy couples with precommitment, causing us to prioritize a reasonable justification of the past over our present needs. The fallacy maintains that if we’ve already committed time, money or resources into an endeavor, we tend to stick with it because we don’t want that money or time to have been a waste. If you buy a spin class for a particular date, hoping the commitment will ensure your attendance, but on that day you end up feeling really sick, you’re likely to still go to the spin class even though that probably isn’t the best idea for your health. On a more long-term scale, a person might finally receive a career position they’d been hoping for, only to realize it no longer matches up with their current needs or desires. In fact, they are likely to stick the experience out regardless, in the name of justifying their time spent getting there.
Additionally, whether precommitment leads to positive or negative outcomes, there is some controversy over its effectiveness. In one study summarized on TDL’s website, researchers Dennis Hummel and Alexander Maedche found that precommitment was the least effective form of nudging.7 Nudges are choice architecture elements designed to guide people toward a particular decision. Evidently, however, having them pre-commit does not reliably ensure their follow-through.
Precommitment and Gambling
Gambling can be addictive, whether you are winning or losing money. According to the hot-hand fallacy, if you are on a winning streak, you might continue to bet money, falsely believing your good luck will continue. According to loss aversion, if you have lost money, you will try to recuperate your losses by betting more.
Slot machines and other electronic gaming devices, which enable rapid continuous play, make us especially susceptible to addictive betting. They tend to be one of the most common reasons gamblers seek help. As a result, some governments have begun to consider implementing different strategies to prevent people from overdoing it.8
Prior to gambling, our headspace is very different than after we start making bets. When making bets, we tend to lose track of time, experience high levels of arousal, and have difficulty stopping even when we intend to. Precommitment understands that more rational decisions can be made when someone isn’t aroused or emotional. As a result, precommitment strategies for electronic gaming devices can force players to decide on a time and money limit before they begin betting, which will enable them to avoid the influences of later mental states.
Different models of precommitment strategies have been trialed in different parts of the world including Norway, Canada and Australia.8 Full precommitment models require a player to use a smart card with a particular amount of money that cannot be reloaded and will not work on any machine after a specified total has been reached. Partial precommitment models use the same cards, but instead of disabling them from continuing to play, they simply allow the player to monitor their levels of use more easily. Additionally, either full or partial models can be mandatory or voluntary.8
Researchers that studied the effects of these precommitment strategies found that 70% of the users of some kind of model gambled more responsibly, which suggests it is an effective strategy to curb gambling addictions.8
Promoting Health Through Technology
Most of us care a great deal about our health. Yet, once our parents stopped booking our dentist and doctor’s appointments for us, it became a lot harder to motivate ourselves to go. Even if we make it to the doctor – for a sore back, for example – and the doctor gives us stretches to do daily, we won’t necessarily follow through on his plan of treatment. Once back home, we might do the stretches for a day or two but end up losing motivation. Since ensuring we maintain good health is incredibly important, how can we ensure we stick to our doctors’ instructions?
Pattern Health is a digital health platform that uses integrated behavioral science and data-driven personalization to improve adherence to treatment plans. The company realizes that the act of physically signing something makes individuals more likely to follow through on what they signed. This is not just a legal matter, but as the company states, “when we sign our names we are also reminding ourselves to follow through on those promises. The signature is hard evidence of the seriousness of our commitment.”1
The app enables patients to ‘pre-commit’ to their health plan in the form of a signature. After consultation with a physician to determine the best care plan, patients are asked to review their personalized care plan on the app, and then sign it to demonstrate their commitment. Pattern Health believes, based on extensive research, that this action will help people who care about their health actually follow through on taking care of themselves.1