Tying Yourself To The Mast

Tying Yourself To The Mast

Remember the story of Odysseus and the Sirens? Odysseus and his men were sailing when the sounds reached the ears of the men aboard the ship. The sounds tugged at their hearts and made them want to weep with joy. Odysseus at once realized that they were approaching the home of the Sirens. The Sirens were known for their beautiful singing voices. The music they made was so hypnotic that sailors stopped sailing their ships, to listen. With no one in charge, the ships would crash, killing everyone on board. Odysseus had his men block their ears with wax so that they would be unable to hear the song. However, he himself wanted to hear it. Thus he ordered his sailors to tie him up to the mast so he could not jump into the sea, or crash the ship, in an attempt to meet the Sirens. It worked. With their ears blocked the men heard nothing and sailed the ship past the Sirens, and Odysseus, unable to untie himself, was able to survive hearing the Siren’s song.

“Tying oneself to a mast” is one of the oldest, and probably most extreme, examples of what psychologists would call a commitment device. A commitment device is basically a decision you make when you’re in a rational state of mind, which “binds” you, therefore preventing you from doing something regrettable when you’re in an irrational state of mind. Popular examples include freezing a credit card in a block of ice to prevent it’s use, or not having junk food in the house.
So why do we need commitment devices? Well, as Nassau William Senior said, “To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will.” You see, when setting goals, we end up creating a struggle between who we are now (our “present” self) and who we wish to be later in life (our “future” self). The problem with this struggle is that it’s not a fair fight. Our “present” self is present. It makes all the decisions. Our “future” self doesn’t have a voice, therefore it sits at the mercy of our “present” self.
Enter the commitment device!
Now I personally am a fan of commitment devices. I utilize them myself and I’ll be the first to suggest them to people struggling with their adherence to a goal. However, there are two major fundamental flaws within their design which, I’d argue, can not only lead to failure, but can cause more harm then good.
The first major flaw with commitment devices is that you are both the creator and enforcer of the rules. Essentially, you are Odysseus and the crew simultaneously. This doesn’t work. What it means is that you are always able to unbind yourself. We simply do this through rationalization. “It’s a holiday”, “It’s only one”, “I’ve already had one, I might as well have another”, etc… Binding only works if we don’t have the key. With a self imposed commitment device we always have the key.
The second major flaw is that the devil’s in the details. Your commitment device is only as strong as your ability to account for all possible scenarios in which you’ll need binding. Unfortunately, this is impossible. Now, yes, you can just simply revise your commitment device after an unforeseen scenario. However, what do you do in that moment? Commitment devices can be strong, but in their eventual failure they often leave us weak (See my previous post on “WHY” Power for somewhat of a backup).
In either case, once unbound, our “present” self takes over. Whatever happens, happens… and more often then not it results in a backfiring of the very purpose behind the creation of the commitment device in the first place. Not the “eating of the cookie”, but the regret associated with failing to stick to the plan or goal. Commitment devices exist to help us achieve our goals, and our perception is that the achievement of our goals will bring us happiness. With each failure we become more aware of the possibility that we might not achieve our goal. Each regrettable decision becomes more impactful because of our potential to prevent it. That regret can become like an anchor, slowing or stopping forward progress.
Once again, I’m not saying commitment devices are bad, or aren’t useful. I simply caution ones complete reliance on them, and worse, associating one’s measure of success with sticking to something which is flawed by it’s very nature.
By | 2012-02-03T05:26:18+00:00 February 3rd, 2012|Nutrition & Health, On Ramp, Outside the gym, Paleo, Paleo Challenge, Uncategorized|7 Comments


  1. Lance February 3, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Wow, I guess I must have slept through that mythology class back in the day! Great post and insight Justin, now just to find some rope…….

  2. Amy February 3, 2012 at 11:33 am

    I always enjoyed the adventures of Odysseus and I have heard the phrase “Tying yourself to the Mast.” However, I never put the two together until now. The struggle between the present and future self is something I deal with daily and it is by far the most difficult exertion of my will. Being at NorCal helps me stay tied to the mast…most of the time. The other times, NorCal helps me not give up.

  3. Daniel Reeves February 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    There are a bunch of web tools to help with this sort of thing, most famously StickK.com but Beeminder.com totally kicks its butt, if you’re a data nerd and the mast you want to tie yourself to involves something graphable (like weight loss or workouts or time spent). Here’s a list of such services: blog.beeminder.com/competitors

    Danny of Beeminder

  4. Daniel Reeves February 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Also, I (unsurprisingly) disagree that commitment devices are flawed by their very nature! You’re right that caution is needed, but if they’re set up right you can solve the weaseling/enforcement problem that you refer to. As for the devil-in-the-details problem, I think there are plenty of uses of commitment devices where it’s plenty unambiguous, like getting down to a healthy weight.

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