Sunday, January 09, 2011

If at First You Don't Succeed...

Ian Ayres

Crosspost from Freakonomics:

Last fall, I saw my recidivist coauthor, Barry Nalebuff, and was struck by how much weight he’d lost. He had a clearly different body shape. I told him he looked great. Barry turned to my spouse (and coauthor) Jennifer Brown and said, “I’m doing it on my own, so I don’t have to use that [expletive]”

I was shocked. Not so much at the language. I’ve heard Barry drop the F-bomb a time or two. But it was so bizarre to have Barry shy away from using a commitment contract. Barry is a world-class game theorist who hasn’t only written about the benefits of commitment devices; he’s also used them to lose weight. He’s the father of the bathing suit diet. Back in 1993 on the first day of a business school course on game theory, Barry promised to teach his last class of the semester in a Speedo if he hadn’t lost fifteen pounds by then. The threat of humiliation was a pretty strong commitment, and sure enough his business students never got to see what I just saw this past summer at the pool — the sight of Barry Nalebuff in a swimsuit.

So it came as a sobering surprise to hear Barry Nalebuff express such unbridled emotion when he said he was dieting on his own to avoid using “that [expletive]” What was he thinking? Of course, Barry’s cri de coeur has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the cofounders of stickK. To be my friend is to know that a stickK contract is an option. Implicitly, I think Barry as a game-theorist was already thinking a step ahead. He understood that if he can’t lose weight on his own, he’s going to have to take bolder action.

I never realized it before, but the mere existence of stickK is providing a service to some people who know of it but never use it. Part of Barry’s motivation to lose weight on his own is to avoid having to use stickK. I must admit that this indirect commitment effect wasn’t foremost in our minds when my cofounders and I set off to create a commitment store. But we’re happy to be of service.

Barry made this backstop benefit of stickK explicit when I asked him later about what prompted him to say what he did. Barry, with typical acuity, said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then use stickK.”

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