This weekend I was at a party (hooray vaccines and the end of the pandemic!) and met a fascinating person who studied econ at GMU and has created some elaborate commitment contracts for himself. He had independently reinvented multiple aspects of Beeminder and figured out one thing in particular much faster than we did. Quoting him with permission:
The main issue I’ve struggled with is how to structure the contract and the accompanying penalties. The way I have categorized it could be considered “punitive” vs “taxing”, or “punitive” vs “strict liability”. With “punitive” regimes, you generally have some sort of “escape valve” in place [Beeminder’s “fine print” feature]. For example, if I’m supposed to work out every day but I come across a day where I literally have no time, or I’m feeling way too tired, or whatever, then the contract could allow an exception for those circumstances.
The problem with “punitive” contracts is that there is way too much discretion, and it quickly loses its force. Because you start to redefine what counts as tired or unavailable “enough” and start applying to more and more questionable situations.
In contrast, the “taxing” system doesn’t give a fuck about your excuses. You’re too tired or too sick or too busy to go work out? Doesn’t matter, pay up. The paying up is a clear demonstration that you’d prefer eating the penalty, and is a good and honest demonstration of what your capabilities are that day. Sometimes this system can be too harsh, like if you have the flu and it’s literally impossible to comply with your commitment contract.
Our current thinking is that if you want the “taxing” system, you opt in to “no-excuses mode”. Or you will, as soon as we replace “weaselproofing” with “no-excuses mode”.
I’ve been groping my way towards Yassine’s taxing-vs-punitive idea for a while now and am pretty pleased with his much more succinct version. My version is collected in a bunch of sprawling notes for an eventual blog post called “Paying Is Not Punishment”. This has been pretty confusing for me because we rave about punishment all the time (mostly recently in our “Contra Positive Reinforcement” post) and many users genuinely prefer the punitive system. I personally prefer the taxing system and tend to be most impressed with users who think of Beeminder that way. But people are different and the same person may even need different approaches for different goals.
It’s probably worth clarifying, at least in your own head, when creating a goal, whether you want Beeminder to punish you for crossing the bright red line or just tax you for crossing it.