Seminar 218, Psychology and Economics: How Are Preferences for Commitment Revealed?

Seminar | September 10 | 2-3:30 p.m. | 648 Evans Hall

 Justin Sydnor, University of Wisconsin, Madison

 Department of Economics

Link to NBER Working Paper

A large literature treats take-up of commitment contracts, in the form of choice-set restrictions or penalties, as a smoking gun for (awareness of) self-control problems. This paper provides new techniques for examining the validity of this assumption, as well as a new approach for detecting (awareness of) self-control problems. Theoretically, we show that with some uncertainty about the future, demand for commitment contracts is closer to a special case than to a robust implication of models of limited self-control. In a field experiment with 1292 members of a fitness facility, we find that many participants take up commitment contracts both for going to the gym more and for going to the gym less, and there is a significant positive correlation in demand for these two types of contracts. This suggests that commitment contract take-up reflects, at least in part, something other than the desire to change own future behavior, such as demand effects or "noisy valuation." Moreover, we find that commitment contract take-up is negatively related to awareness of self-control problems: a novel information treatment that increased awareness of self-control problems reduced demand for commitment contracts. We address the limitations of using commitment contracts as a measurement tool by showing that a combination of belief forecasts and willingness to pay for linear incentives provides more robust identification of limited self-control and people's awareness of it. We use the methodology to obtain some of the first parameter estimates of partially-sophisticated quasi-hyperbolic discounting in the field.