Would “pre-commitment” get you to your goal?

October 29, 2012 —

I recently learned about a new approach to achieve goals and/or cure bad habits: pre-commitment. The concept is that you set a specific goal, like losing 15 pounds or exercising at least 20 minutes a day, and then commit to paying a penalty if you fail.

Many people do this informally by proclaiming their goals to family and friends, say, by placing a bet or knowing they’ll face shame if they blow it. If you want a more steel-clad contract, though, you can turn to pre-commitment websites, like StickK.com,developed by Yale University economists who tested the approach “through extensive field research.”

Would pre-commitment make you stick to the scale?

Basically, you define a goal; set monetary stakes, if you want, and choose where you want the money to go if you fail; designate a “referee” to monitor your progress and confirm your reports to StickK (or opt for the less-effective honor system); and recruit other StickK users as your supporters, who will post “encouraging messages in your Commitment Journal” on the site.

“Years of economic and behavioral research show that people who put stakes – either their money or their reputation – on the table are far more likely to actually achieve a goal they set for themselves,” says the StickK site. Apparently it’s true: The site recently noted that as part of the 176,613 commitments created, 300,659 workouts have been completed and 2,502,250 cigarettes have not been smoked.

Interestingly, I found out about StickK not in an article about weight loss or tobacco cessation, but in an article in the Oct. 15 issue of The New Yorker that describes how people politically loyal to a candidate or party can send their stakes, if they fail, to that candidate’s or party’s opponent. Talk about an incentive!

(A quick digression: The New Yorker article goes on to criticize Congress’ use of pre-commitment in how it set up a super committee to develop a long-term solution to America’s budget deficit. The deal made by members and the White House “stipulated that, if the super committee failed, nearly a trillion dollars of automatic spending cuts, known as ‘sequestration,’ would go into effect, on January 2.” Sadly, pre-commitment in this case did not work; as of this writing, the nation is still heading for that fiscal cliff.)

Do you think pre-commitment would motivate you or someone you know to achieve goals? Would designating your stakes to a cause you oppose make you more likely to succeed?


Endlessly curious and easily entertained, Barb Dietrich Boose loves being a member of the friendly, fascinating DMU community and its creative communications team. The University's publications director and DMU Magazine editor, Barb is always on the hunt for story ideas, good books and new recipes to try out on her family, such as her surprisingly tasty pork-and-bean bars.