“What makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don’t want to discourage it completely.” — Franklin P. Jones
While modern societies promote freedom of choice, there are many situations in life where one would be better off not having the choice. Surely, we would eat much healthier if junk food was not as easily accessible; we would be more productive if we did not have access to the Internet and we would stop watching TV to read more books if… we did not have a TV!
However, more often than not, we find ourselves torn between an aspiration to commit to long-term goals (i.e. be healthy, productive, cultured…) and a desire – if not a need – to retain some flexibility of choice allowing for occasional deviations from our goals (i.e. can I make an exception and watch this TV show tonight? What if I need the Internet for my work today?). While commitment helps us to achieve long-term goals by restricting freedom of choice, flexibility allows us to cope with uncertainty by leaving options open to our future, possibly better informed, self.
Part of my research is devoted to understanding the circumstances under which a decision maker may favor commitment over flexibility and vice versa. I study this trade-off both at a theoretical and at an empirical level, by adopting a decision-theoretic approach where choices between menus of options constitute the dataset. When is a smaller menu preferred to a larger one and conversely?
One circumstance under which flexibility seems valuable is when the decision maker feels uncertain about which of two options is better. Both introspection and the existing evidence seem to suggest that one is more likely to defer choice and keep options open when the objects of choice have conflicting properties. With Leonardo Pejsachowicz (NYU), we study the theoretical implications of the behavioral rule “Whenever in doubt, just leave options open” in a standard menu choice environment. In our parsimonious framework, we find that imposing this intuitive rule has strong implications for the trade-off between commitment and flexibility: one cannot generate any desire for commitment from an indecisive decision maker who uses this rule of caution. In that sense, indecisiveness provides psychological foundations to preference for flexibility.
At the other extreme, commitment to a restricted choice set may be strictly preferred in the presence of temptation. I study experimentally what potential factors might influence the take-up of a commitment device, from personal characteristics of the subject pool to the specific features of the device or the choice environment. I analyze this question both in the laboratory under controlled conditions and in the more realistic context of a field study. In both experiments, I elicit subjects’ preferences over a set of menus which may or may not contain a tempting alternative. In the laboratory experiment, I study whether subjects are willing to remove from their future choice set the possibility to exit an effortful and boring task, and if so, whether they are willing to pay in terms of effort or money for the option to be committed. In the field study, I investigate whether participants in a weight loss challenge are willing to restrict their access to unhealthy food options, and how this correlates with their demand for another commitment device, which encourages healthy behaviors through goal setting. In both cases, I find that the demand for commitment is substantial in the presence of tempting alternatives.
“The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him” – Henry L. Stimson
The second part of my research is devoted to understanding the circumstances under which trust relationships can be formed. Because trust relies on an implicit contract whose terms are dictated by social norms, it can be very fragile. Understanding the epistemic conditions under which trust can emerge is therefore of particular importance. In a trust game experiment, I study what happens when the environment is noisy so that the potential truster can only imperfectly signal his intention to trust his partner. If trustworthiness depends on how much one feels trusted, then noisy environments will be less favorable to the emergence of trust relationships. I find that behavior in the trust game is strongly sensitive to whether trust intentions can be clearly conveyed and that the opportunity to signal trust in a credible manner encourages potential trusters to trust.