the want-can-will test for akrasia

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
"Kibotzer") as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:
http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com

Locke and Mises said it well when they wrote, respectively, “the actions of
men are the best interpreters of their thoughts,” [1] and “the scale of
values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action.” [2]

Using a commitment device is an action. If Odysseus had knowingly sailed
within range of the Sirens while ignoring Circe’s advice to tie himself to
the mast, it would’ve been reasonable to infer that he wanted to die.

[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Locke
[2] http://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec2.asp

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 12:36 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
"Kibotzer") as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com

Josh, I’m still trying to decide if you’ve rendered my wordy attack on
Revealed Preferences moot or if you’re just highlighting the paradox.

Here’s economist Tyler Cowen essentially saying that there’s no such
thing as akrasia, only self-delusion:
“All people are equally good at time management, but some people are
more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want
to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing
something else.”

But maybe the counterargument is as simple as “using commitment
devices is an action”. The whole Revealed Preferences / self-delusion
argument falls on its face there.
My use of a commitment device proves (by the orthodox economists’ own
criterion) that I really do wish to be doing something else.

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 03:19, Josh Jordan josh@joshjordan.name wrote:

Locke and Mises said it well when they wrote, respectively, “the actions of
men are the best interpreters of their thoughts,” [1] and “the scale of
values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action.” [2]
Using a commitment device is an action. If Odysseus had knowingly sailed
within range of the Sirens while ignoring Circe’s advice to tie himself to
the mast, it would’ve been reasonable to infer that he wanted to die.
[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Locke
[2] http://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec2.asp

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 12:36 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
"Kibotzer") as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com

I posted this on the Beeminder Blog:
http://blog.beeminder.com/wantcanwill (and Josh’s response is there
now as well).

I’m now wondering if two thirds of the want-can-will test is obvious.
Obviously if you don’t want it then it would never occur to you to
beemind it in the first place. Similarly for the “will” part: if you
already do it then there’s no problem to solve.

So it boils down to this: You should beemind things that you have
total control over.

On Mon, Sep 5, 2011 at 10:15, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Josh, I’m still trying to decide if you’ve rendered my wordy attack on
Revealed Preferences moot or if you’re just highlighting the paradox.

Here’s economist Tyler Cowen essentially saying that there’s no such
thing as akrasia, only self-delusion:
“All people are equally good at time management, but some people are
more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want
to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing
something else.”

But maybe the counterargument is as simple as “using commitment
devices is an action”. The whole Revealed Preferences / self-delusion
argument falls on its face there.
My use of a commitment device proves (by the orthodox economists’ own
criterion) that I really do wish to be doing something else.

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 03:19, Josh Jordan josh@joshjordan.name wrote:

Locke and Mises said it well when they wrote, respectively, “the actions of
men are the best interpreters of their thoughts,” [1] and “the scale of
values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action.” [2]
Using a commitment device is an action. If Odysseus had knowingly sailed
within range of the Sirens while ignoring Circe’s advice to tie himself to
the mast, it would’ve been reasonable to infer that he wanted to die.
[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Locke
[2] http://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec2.asp

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 12:36 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
"Kibotzer") as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://"Daniel Reeves"
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com

Daniel,

I have a bit of unsolicited marketing/strategy advice for beeminder.
Maybe you can run this by your CxOs and VPs at your next off-site. :wink:

I think it will work out better for beeminder if in your posts you
generally try to promote the use of commitment devices in general,
rather than beeminder specifically. Basically, keep making beeminder
the best place to implement commitment devices with a computer, and
talk about that occasionally, but in general just refer to commitment
devices in general terms rather than suggesting the people “beemind”
something. In this connection, your introduction of the #akrasia
hashtag was brilliant; keep using and promoting that.

There are a few reasons for this suggestion.

  1. Even though they are as old as Odysseus, commitment devices are
    still a new concept for many people. Therefore most of the battle is
    just getting people to talk about commitment devices, to agree that
    computers can be helpful, and to understand that websites with
    monetary contracts can be even more helpful. It’s a huge win for you
    if more people are just thinking about the subject in general, and
    searching a bit for the best site to use. Don’t worry about
    competitors; the high-order bit at this stage is just making the pie
    bigger (and the world a better place at the same time, how great is
    that?) Even on the akrasia list, just keep it general rather than
    product-specific. I think it will bring in more people.
  2. The strategy I’m recommending is reminiscent of how suits are
    marketed: suit-makers are always getting the media to run articles
    about how “the suit is back”. And yes, there will be ads about how
    this particular brand of suit is the best or whatever, but the real
    marketing is more subtle, and I think most of your posts will be most
    effective in that light.

Josh

On Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 5:05 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

I posted this on the Beeminder Blog:
http://blog.beeminder.com/wantcanwill (and Josh’s response is there
now as well).

I’m now wondering if two thirds of the want-can-will test is obvious.
Obviously if you don’t want it then it would never occur to you to
beemind it in the first place. Similarly for the “will” part: if you
already do it then there’s no problem to solve.

So it boils down to this: You should beemind things that you have
total control over.

On Mon, Sep 5, 2011 at 10:15, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Josh, I’m still trying to decide if you’ve rendered my wordy attack on
Revealed Preferences moot or if you’re just highlighting the paradox.

Here’s economist Tyler Cowen essentially saying that there’s no such
thing as akrasia, only self-delusion:
“All people are equally good at time management, but some people are
more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want
to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing
something else.”

But maybe the counterargument is as simple as “using commitment
devices is an action”. The whole Revealed Preferences / self-delusion
argument falls on its face there.
My use of a commitment device proves (by the orthodox economists’ own
criterion) that I really do wish to be doing something else.

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 03:19, Josh Jordan josh@joshjordan.name wrote:

Locke and Mises said it well when they wrote, respectively, “the actions of
men are the best interpreters of their thoughts,” [1] and “the scale of
values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action.” [2]
Using a commitment device is an action. If Odysseus had knowingly sailed
within range of the Sirens while ignoring Circe’s advice to tie himself to
the mast, it would’ve been reasonable to infer that he wanted to die.
[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Locke
[2] http://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec2.asp

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 12:36 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
“Kibotzer”) as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com

First, consider this stuff solicited! Really appreciate it!

It’s of course ironic that Josh sent this to the list (he mentioned
offline that it was unintentional) since it violates its own advice,
but since the thread is started…

I agree with this way of thinking, certainly the part about not
worrying about competitors. In other fora I’m in the habit of
mentioning StickK and Beeminder in the same breath as the two best
websites for facilitating self-binding. (I guess I did that in the
latest blog post too.)

If there was hope of the Beeminder blog getting much traction beyond
Beeminder users I’d agree with the rest of this advice. Maybe I’ll
take the advice anyway. I did just make the last sentence of
blog.beeminder.com/wantcanwill a bit more general as well (mentioning
stickk again).

For Akratics Anonymous, let’s do a straw poll:

On Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 04:48, Josh Jordan josh@joshjordan.name wrote:

Daniel,

I have a bit of unsolicited marketing/strategy advice for beeminder.
Maybe you can run this by your CxOs and VPs at your next off-site. :wink:

I think it will work out better for beeminder if in your posts you
generally try to promote the use of commitment devices in general,
rather than beeminder specifically. Basically, keep making beeminder
the best place to implement commitment devices with a computer, and
talk about that occasionally, but in general just refer to commitment
devices in general terms rather than suggesting the people “beemind”
something. In this connection, your introduction of the #akrasia
hashtag was brilliant; keep using and promoting that.

There are a few reasons for this suggestion.

  1. Even though they are as old as Odysseus, commitment devices are
    still a new concept for many people. Therefore most of the battle is
    just getting people to talk about commitment devices, to agree that
    computers can be helpful, and to understand that websites with
    monetary contracts can be even more helpful. It’s a huge win for you
    if more people are just thinking about the subject in general, and
    searching a bit for the best site to use. Don’t worry about
    competitors; the high-order bit at this stage is just making the pie
    bigger (and the world a better place at the same time, how great is
    that?) Even on the akrasia list, just keep it general rather than
    product-specific. I think it will bring in more people.
  2. The strategy I’m recommending is reminiscent of how suits are
    marketed: suit-makers are always getting the media to run articles
    about how “the suit is back”. And yes, there will be ads about how
    this particular brand of suit is the best or whatever, but the real
    marketing is more subtle, and I think most of your posts will be most
    effective in that light.

Josh

On Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 5:05 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

I posted this on the Beeminder Blog:
http://blog.beeminder.com/wantcanwill (and Josh’s response is there
now as well).

I’m now wondering if two thirds of the want-can-will test is obvious.
Obviously if you don’t want it then it would never occur to you to
beemind it in the first place. Similarly for the “will” part: if you
already do it then there’s no problem to solve.

So it boils down to this: You should beemind things that you have
total control over.

On Mon, Sep 5, 2011 at 10:15, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Josh, I’m still trying to decide if you’ve rendered my wordy attack on
Revealed Preferences moot or if you’re just highlighting the paradox.

Here’s economist Tyler Cowen essentially saying that there’s no such
thing as akrasia, only self-delusion:
“All people are equally good at time management, but some people are
more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want
to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing
something else.”

But maybe the counterargument is as simple as “using commitment
devices is an action”. The whole Revealed Preferences / self-delusion
argument falls on its face there.
My use of a commitment device proves (by the orthodox economists’ own
criterion) that I really do wish to be doing something else.

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 03:19, Josh Jordan josh@joshjordan.name wrote:

Locke and Mises said it well when they wrote, respectively, “the actions of
men are the best interpreters of their thoughts,” [1] and “the scale of
values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action.” [2]
Using a commitment device is an action. If Odysseus had knowingly sailed
within range of the Sirens while ignoring Circe’s advice to tie himself to
the mast, it would’ve been reasonable to infer that he wanted to die.
[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Locke
[2] http://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec2.asp

On Sat, Aug 6, 2011 at 12:36 AM, Daniel Reeves dreeves@umich.edu wrote:

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a
classic failure of rationality – not acting in our own overall best
interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill,
but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy
lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from
smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life,
then that’s totally fine. I’m quite serious. It’s up to the individual
to decide these trade-offs. I’m just talking about those people who
explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their
own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality and those
lucky people often suspect that those of us who do are actually just
deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions.
A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of
evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that
it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are
wrong and the orthodox economists [1] are right: actions reveal
preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools
like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you
only think you want to. But, if so, at least such tools will serve
to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our
delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable
indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of
revealed preferences if we persist in using Beeminder to force
ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so.
Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name
“Kibotzer”) as a side project to help friends and family (and
ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can
conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It
may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some
us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of
rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the genuine failure to do
what we genuinely want to do?

THE WANT-CAN-WILL TEST

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight
or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now
consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical
evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic.

[1] Here’s economist Tyler Cowen, who may or may not count as
orthodox, expressing the revealed-preferences view:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/my-sentence-on.html


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com


http://dreev.es – search://“Daniel Reeves”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – http://beeminder.com