The Tyrant Alarm Clock: The (Almost) Perfect Commitment Device

Commitment devices are essentially a way to supplant your own faulty motivation drive with an external motivation source. Put another way, a commitment device is a way of improving your overall welfare by ex ante limiting the number of options available to you later. These kinds of self-imposed future enforcement mechanisms show up everywhere, from the national level, such as with economic policies that encourage states to live up to their foreign direct investment commitments, to the personal level, such as with weight loss strategies. (Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the commitment devices designed to encourage weight loss that are the most commonly discussed — perhaps because losing weight is the classic every day example of the tension between short term desires vs. long term desires.)

One problem with commitment devices, however, is that the most common form of them — i.e., announcing to people what your intended goal is, so you have the fear of being judged to spurn you into action — may actually be psychologically counter productive:

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

Not to mention, telling others may not even be all that motivating when faced with making a short term choice. It is too easy to convince yourself that either your peer group won’t notice your failure to live up to your commitment, or that they will but it will not severely impact their feelings toward you.

So rather than telling others of a plan, another common form of a commitment device is to use a commitment device not based in social evaluations but in wagering a sum of money (or other desired resource) on your ability to carry through with the goal. For instance, writing a check to a political party you are not aligned with and vowing to mail it should you fail to stop smoking. A problem with these commitment devices, however, is that if you fall short of your goal, you might not carry through with inflicting the self-imposed penalty afterward either. As a way of remedying this problem, a couple of economists even started StrickK, a website that allows you to irrevocably commit to donating money to a specified charity if you fail to meet your desired goal.

That’s a good step, but it doesn’t completely limit your future choices, as it may well be too tempting later to simply lie to StickK and claim you lost those 15 pounds when you really didn’t. Without another human to evaluate your claims of success and to enforce the penalty if you have not, you have not sufficiently limited your choices ahead of time.

So the problem, in short: If (1) informing others of your plans won’t work because their possible vague disappointment in you is not a strong enough motivator, and because the act of telling your plan makes you less likely to carry through with plans, and (2) non-peer group based commitments are far too easy to fake (at least until we develop AI!) and carry a risk that the penalty will never be imposed, how can a commitment device be designed that is both hard or impossible to fake but also carries a concrete penalty?

The solution: a commitment device that irrevocably commits you to aggravating the ever-living daylights out of your friends if you fail to carry through. Say hello to the Tyrant Alarm Clock.

The Tyrant Clock, designed by Alice Wang has to be the meanest alarm clock concept ever invented. Some alarm clocks make a terribly annoying noise or require you to complete a physical task to shut them off. There’s even some now that will shake your bed until you’re up. Not the Tyrant Clock. This clock takes waking up into pure psychological warfare territory. You’re not going to hear many alarm clocks called pure diabolical evil but there you go, you just did.

The clock syncs up with your cell phone, randomly goes through your contact list, and then calls someone different every three minutes after your intended wake up time. It displays in a large size the name of the person who’s about to get their own wake up call from you. The potential for it to call someone and in some way completely ruin your life is huge. A disaster waiting to happen, which would make it the ideal alarm clock.

Sure, you may want to put the clock across the room (preferably next to a large pot of freshly brewed coffee) to keep you from turning it off and slinking back under the covers again. But once you account for that problem, this clock is a pretty effective way of ensuring that what’s in your best interest for your long-term utility (waking up on time) is in direct alignment with your short-term utility the next morning (not having a randomly selected friend hate your guts).


A “Tired” Argument…

Yuk yuk. Oh god, that one was really bad. Okay, I promise, there will be no more puns in the future.

But I’ve only just come across this article, “Obama can help free trade with tariffs,” and it’s managed to sufficiently irritate me enough that I can’t let it pass by without comment. We know now that Obama did, in fact, agree to the 35% increase in tariffs on Chinese tires. It was a poor decision, and I have my fingers crossed that this was an ugly unicorn of a decision that won’t be seen again.

But Prestowitz’s article is full of WTF.

The orthodox free-trade view of most pundits holds that if Mr Obama accepts the recommendation he will fail the free-trade test. In fact, the truth is just the opposite. Not to accept the tariff recommendation would be a severe blow to open trade and globalisation as well as to America’s future economic health.

The phrase “extraordinary claims call for extraordinary proof” comes to mind, but Prestowitz sure doesn’t deliver it. On why not imposing barriers to trade is not desirable, he writes:

This kind of trade is not win-win. Rather it is a classic zero-sum game. It is well-known to game theorists that in such situations a tit-for-tat response is the optimal strategy.

Horsedroppings. The ‘optimal strategy’ in any given trade situation is going to depend on what sort of strategy the other 190-odd players on the world market are going with. I seriously doubt that there’s any game theorist anywhere that has declared “in a classic zero sum game, always go with tit-for-tat.” (And for that matter, he’s not even come close to actually showing this is a “classic zero sum game” in the first place!)

But even if Prestowitz were right about the above, game theory alone is completely inadequate for making the sort of decision Obama just made. There are going to be serious political and diplomatic repercussions from the imposition of the tire tariff, and the last thing the U.S. wants to be doing right now is to be setting a precedent for the rest of the world that hard economic times justifies the enactment of short sighted and petty trade restrictions.


Update: An economist responds to Prestowitz’s argument.