Learning 673

Carrot, or stick? You’ve probably heard these two words used to describe incentives for people to do things they may not want to do. 

A carrot is a reward, and a stick is a punishment. A carrot-and-stick approach is not only effective in changing behavior but also best-suited to encourage people to put long-term goals before short-term satisfaction.

Tiny sticks aren’t a deterrent. A big stick, however, makes a potential lawbreaker think twice.

So reprimanding bad behavior is the best way to ensure commitment to long-term goals. Yet for a cash fine to act as an actual deterrent, it is essential that the amount be substantial.

The higher the fine, in fact, the more effective the punishment! Modest fines only put a price tag on bad behavior. Instead of taking the behavior off the table entirely, a small fine makes bad behavior something that’s okay, if you don’t mind shelling out a few bucks.

In sum, fines that could help lawbreakers feel less bad about breaking rules aren’t exactly good fines. Yet if a fine was to go toward something that society generally disapproved of, a potential lawbreaker might make more of an effort to avoid fines by breaking fewer rules.

Lots of little sticks might feel like a tickle. Hit with a big stick, and you can’t help but capitulate.

For instance, cigarette taxes have little effect on the number of smokers because the added cost for each pack is too insignificant to represent an effective punishment for smoking. In other words, the temptation to smoke still outweighs the punishment.

A better option would be to enact instead one large punishment. One big stick gives a person pause, and is much more likely to deter a smoker in a moment of temptation.

Several researchers have suggested replacing the few dollars of tax levied on each pack of cigarettes sold with a smoking permit which, for $5,000, would allow the permit bearer to buy 2,500 cigarettes.

While a smoker might be able to stomach a few bucks with each pack, the enormous cost of a permit could quickly curb behavior at a stroke. And in the end, this big stick would prevent a crippling addiction from causing long-term damage.

It’s true that often, the only way to really change human behavior is through severe punishment!

You also need to set yourself up with a commitment contract. A referee will help keep you in line to meet your goals.

Sticks and carrots offer effective incentives for curbing bad behavior. Yet we also need effective tools to overcome our addiction to now. One way to do this is to make an agreement with yourself, called a commitment contract.

Commitment contracts offer a formal way of taking undesirable behavior off the table. In effect, they’re a way of tying your hands to prevent you from doing bad things in the future.

But how can you effectively establish a commitment contract? For a contract to really make an impact, the punishment for not following through has to be as serious as the bad behavior the contract addresses. Thus severe punishment and public exposure is what will keep you in line.  

For instance, the drug Antabuse helps people avoid drinking alcohol by giving them an immediate hangover as soon as they have a drink.

Commitment contracts should also incorporate a degree of public exposure. What our friends and colleagues think of us often drives our behavior. We react to social pressures by behaving in ways to protect ourselves from ridicule.

For example, a professor committed himself to losing weight by saying he would teach class wearing a swimsuit if he failed to meet his goal. While his idea was extreme, it was effective!

Finding an impartial referee is another element in establishing an effective commitment contract. The success of every contract relies on a reliable authority who can ensure the application of agreed-upon punishments for bad behavior. Without a referee, punishment can easily be avoided.

Don’t just choose a friend to be your referee, as he might go easy on you and let your bad behavior slide. But don’t hire an enemy for the job, either. It’s essential to trust that your referee will be fair and help you achieve your goals!

Long-term changes require realistic goals and long-term commitment contracts. To achieve permanent change, you need to set realistic goals.

For instance, most obese people who decide to lose weight aim to do so by working toward significantly shedding more than 10 percent of their current weight. But reducing your weight by some 10 percent is a serious task! Most dieters often lose a lot of weight quickly, only for their success to be short-lived.

But having realistic goals isn’t enough. You also need a long-term commitment contract to suit them. For instance, a commitment contract for a dietary goal is usually based on the one-time loss of a certain amount of weight. Therefore, an additional commitment contract is necessary to ensure that a dieter then keeps the weight off.
Such a contract should address things like a daily commitment to weight control, a punishment for exceeding a certain weight and a weight range in which the dieter is expected to naturally fluctuate. Only by making long-term commitment contracts like that can you reach your goals and stick with them!

We are slaves to now and often forgo long-term benefits to indulge in immediate rewards. Lucky for us, there’s a way to overcome this bad habit and it starts with carrots and sticks, or rewards and repercussions.

Make your long-term goals a reality with commitment contracts. The next time you decide to make a major life change like quitting smoking, losing weight or saving money, make sure you follow through by drafting a commitment contract. It’s easy to build an effective contract for yourself as long as you set realistic goals and severe punishments for failing to meet them.


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