Goethe once proclaimed, “What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” Well, duh.
Goethe may have been a decent writer, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that at Yale, procrastination is a way of life. To paraphrase Freud, it probably all started in our childhoods. When I was nine I tried to read the Encyclopedia Britannica but lost motivation after the entry for “Anabaena” (“a genus of nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae with beadlike or barrel-like cells and interspersed enlarged spores”). Or maybe there simply wasn’t enough time, since, at the same age, I’d resolved to write a novel. But between learning long division and watching Power Rangers, I soon put the Pulitzer plans on the back burner.
My problem, according to a few Yale professors-cum-entrepreneurs, was that I didn’t incur external repercussions. Perhaps if I had been taunted because I didn’t know what an anabantidae was (for the record, it’s a family of fish) or had my fingers chopped off because I didn’t write a novel, I would have had a little more success.
Such is the theory behind StickK, an online service that aims to help users accomplish their goals by binding them to “commitment contracts.” The brainchild of Yale Economics Professor Dean Karlan, Yale Law School Professor Ian Ayres, and Yale School of Management student Jordan Goldberg ’10, StickK is based on two well-known assumptions of behavioral economics: First, incentives motivate people, and second, people don’t always do what they claim they intend to do.
The leap from theory to web site was simple enough, according to Karlan. “A lot of research suggests that commitment contracts can really make a difference and I wanted to see this in practice,” he explains.
His subjects first pick a goal from the following categories: lose weight, exercise, run a marathon, vote, quit smoking, and everything else. While the majority of StickK users commit to losing weight or exercising (40 and 25 percent, respectively), 30 percent create custom goals that run the gamut from “learn to use chopsticks” to “stop masturbating.” Maybe the strangest custom goal Goldberg’s seen? “Adopt a baby from a third-world country.”
After committing to a goal, users stake money on it. Pledge amounts vary; StickK’s largest stake on record was $10,000, from someone who wanted to lose weight. Though such a risk might seem absurd, statistics show that those who pledge money are 40 percent more likely to succeed in their goal than those who don’t. If they do fail, however, users must forfeit their money to a randomly selected charity, a friend, or an “anti-charity.”
There are two designated “anti-charities” on each ideological side of five controversial issues—abortion, the environment, gay marriage, gun control, and politics. Users are instructed to choose the organization most contrary to their beliefs to provide extra incentive to stay on task. According to Goldberg, StickK’s CEO, those who select anti-charities are 15 percent more likely to reach their goal than those who opt to donate money to charities or friends.
The linchpin of this system is a referee, an individual who monitors the success of commitment contracts. Users can select anyone to be their referees—friends, foes, family members, or even bosses. Each time a user submits a progress report, his or her referee receives an email asking for confirmation of the report. The less daring SticK user can even eschew monetary stakes and rely solely on a referee for motivation.
My interest in StickK was initially a clinical one. While I did acknowledge a margin for improvement, I was more or less happy with myself and remained content to continue treating sushi as a finger-food and exercising only when I felt like it. Then I talked to my 15-year-old brother Jared on the phone.
“Hey, Jare, how you doing?” I began.
“Pretty good. Got lotsa work. What about you?”
“Well, I’m writing an article on this web site that basically, like, helps people to achieve their goals.”
“You say ‘like’ a lot,” Jared said.
“Yeah, I know. But I’m not, like, half as bad as some of my friends.”
“You just said it again. Like, like, like. Hi my name is, like, Haley, and I really like saying the word ‘like.’”
“Bye, Jared,” I said.
As unpleasant as it was to admit, Jared was right. For someone not from the San Fernando Valley, I was using the word “like” far too frequently. Suddenly motivated to wean myself off my tic, I made a commitment on StickK.
“I commit to avoid using the word ‘like’ as a filler,” I typed in the custom goal box. I knew that my goal was a lofty one, but I was determined to succeed. To maximize my chances of success, I staked $9.99 to the George W. Bush Presidential Library, my anti-charity of choice. I then guilt-tripped a friend into registering as my referee and seven others into signing up on StickK as my supporters, which meant that they’d receive emails about my progress without having to directly report on it.
Since I was working on a deadline, I signed up for only one week, the shortest contract available. This meant there would be just one reporting period. It would be success or failure. If I let slip even one little “like,” it was over. In hindsight, that was, like, so deluded.
I managed to avoid the L-word for all of a day by speaking like a robot. “I’ll. Have. An. Iced. Coffee. Please.”
“Okay, R2-D2,” smirked the Starbucks barista.
On the second day, when speaking like an android got tiring, I stopped talking altogether.
“Haley, you’re not going to mistakenly say ‘like’ if you ask for the salt,” my referee said as I vigorously pointed at the saltshaker at dinner. Maybe that was so, but I felt I couldn’t be too safe. When I wasn’t eating or in class, I hid in my room so I didn’t have to talk to people.
When I felt myself losing motivation, I pictured my money winging toward Texas and meditated on my favorite Bushism: “Our enemies never stop thinking of ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Then I got too comfortable. I was walking out of my architecture lecture with a friend, discussing the sketchbook assignment for that week.
“I just don’t understand what we’re supposed to draw,” she complained.
“Well, what Professor Purves said to do was, like, SHIT!”
Even though I had failed, I couldn’t bear the thought that Bush had gotten the better of me. I signed up for another week with the same setup ($9.99 to Bush’s library if I failed) but a slightly altered goal. Instead of trying to completely avoid using “like” in its incorrect forms, I aimed to say it fewer than twenty times a day, monitoring myself with a tally counter I’d rush ordered online. I figured physically holding the counter would remind me to avoid my nemesis. I was wrong.
I failed again on the very first day, clocking in with a whopping 68 “likes.” It would just slip out when I least expected it. In the Bookstore: “I’m looking for this book about, like—Damn it!” CLICK. In section: “I think what Kafka is trying to express is that, like, FUCK—oh, sorry.” CLICK. On the phone with my mom: “So for Jared’s birthday I was thinking we could, like, SHIT.” CLICK. Now I not only sounded like a Valley girl, but a Valley girl with Tourette’s.
StickK, it turns out, is not a magic wand that generates motivation out of thin air—as its behavioral-economics foundation would suggest, it works best with adequate incentives. I thought that I had set up both of my commitment contracts properly: I had a goal, a referee to keep me on point, and money pledged to an organization that I abhorred for extra incentive. How had I still failed?
The answer may have to do with our natural response to negative incentives. Alan Kazdin, a Yale clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral interventions, explains, “When people are in danger of losing money, especially to an organization that is contrary to their values, a likely side effect is that they will try to escape from it.”
For me, that avoidance manifested itself in the humble amount of money I had pledged. $9.99, though not a negligible amount, was by no means enough to keep my mind on my commitment contract. While I suspected this when I chose the amount, I wasn’t willing to risk losing more money.
Caroline Savello CC ’09 ran (or, more accurately, did not run at all) into a similar problem when she committed to exercise five times a week for one month.
“I only pledged $5 a week, which I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be enough to keep me motivated to choose going to the gym over sitting on my couch watching TV,” she remembers. “I begrudgingly forfeited the money but definitely felt tempted to lie.”
There is currently no way for the StickK administration to ensure that its users are telling the truth about whether they succeeded or not.
“We operate on an honor code. We trust our users,” Goldberg says.
But perhaps StickK gives us too much credit. Out of the $650,000 that has been staked on the site since its launch, only $50,000 has been forfeited. Maybe StickK really has helped its users successfully accomplish their goals, but I suspected foul play.
Anna Parks CC ’09, who also used StickK for exercise purposes, was so traumatized by the prospect of her money finding its way to the coffers of an anti-gay-marriage organization that she “fudged” her report.
“To me, the shame of lying was better than sending my money to them,” Parks confesses. She didn’t have a referee and admits that even if she had, “I would have convinced them to lie for me.”
Xan White PC ’09, like Savello and Parks, registered on StickK with the intention of pledging to jog regularly. But suspecting that, like Parks, he would lie to prevent his money from going to his anti-charity of choice, he decided against making a contract at all.
“I think StickK could be a great motivating tool if people found legitimate referees,” White concludes. “Just having friends and family monitor you doesn’t work because you can usually persuade them to lie for you.”
If we were self-motivated enough to run five times a week or adopt a Malawian baby à la Madonna, we wouldn’t need StickK to begin with. In theory, external motivators should help cultivate internal motivation. But the abundance of loopholes available to StickK users eliminates any real stakes the program could claim. Users can pledge an inconsequential amount of money that they won’t be afraid to lose, or they can lie. StickK’s fatal flaw is that it assumes that we are more motivated and moral than we actually are.
“Extrinsic motivators aren’t really effective for me,” Parks admits. “I need to want to do something for myself.”
The source of my failure was not a lack of commitment, but rather pledging too little money and attempting to subvert a subconscious habit. Next time, though, I am eager to give StickK a real shot, with higher stakes and a more stringent referee.
“Hey, Jare,” I say a few weeks later.
“Hi. Mom told me about your little failure. Didn’t think you’d be able to do it.”
“Anytime, that’s what I’m here for.”
“Actually, for once, I have another purpose for you. Over winter break, I’m going to make another commitment contract and you’re going to be my referee.”
“My referee. You just call me out when I say ‘like.’”