Monday, February 10, 2003


Self-control is a problem for spendthrifts and drug addicts, right? People prepared to indulge themselves in the present at the expense of their welfare in the future. These people can get around their problem by precommiting to do good: locking alcohol away and hiding the key, or paying most of their salary into an automatic savings plan.

But self-control can also be a problem for people who are addicted to not spending on themselves. The papers I discussed on Life Matters conclude that about 30 per cent of people have this problem.

I and my wife have this problem. We won't spend on indulgences on any given day because it always makes more sense to save the money up for necessities later. But a life lived this way means no indulgences ever, which can hardly be optimal.

Ran Kivetz outlines the problem is a newish paper The Joyless Consumer: Pre-Committing to Luxury to Overcome the Necessity Compulsion.

The solution he offers to those of us who find it hard to be bad is the same as the chief solution used by people who find it hard to be good: precoimmitment.

At the start of this year my wife and bought season tickets to every show put on by the Sydney Theatre Company during 2003.

That forced us to get out and to stop worrying about the cost. We wore the psychological pain of our decision to spend on indulgence once at the start of the year, and then were forced to enjoy ourselves throughout the rest of the year.

Kivetz conducts hypothetical and real lotteries and discovers that a substantial segment of consumers choose the luxury prizes over the cash prize of equal or greater value. He says most explain their choice as motivated by the need to pre-commit in order to guarantee a luxury experience and to stop the money ending up in the pool used for necessities.