Precommitment is a technique where you intentionally limit the future options available to you, in order to ensure your commitment to some course of action. This can take various forms, including eliminating options that you want to avoid and making them more difficult to choose.
In the context of psychology, precommitment is generally used to ensure that you’ll stay committed in the future to an optimal course of action. For example, if you want to avoid contacting someone in the future, because they’re bad for you, but you know that you might be tempted to do so anyway, you can precommit to not contacting them by deleting their contact information from your phone and unfollowing or blocking them on social media.
In the context of game theory, precommitment is generally used as a strategy to ensure your commitment to a certain course of action and as a way to make your threats appear more credible to others. For example, an advancing army can precommit to an attack by burning any bridges that would allow them to retreat, as soon as they cross them, which leaves them with no option but to keep advancing.
Precommitment can be a valuable technique to use in many areas of life. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the concept of precommitment, and understand how you can use it as effectively as possible.
Examples of precommitment
An example of precommitment is that, if you know that you might panic and sell your stocks at a bad time, you can log out of your trading account and lose your password, and make sure that you can’t recover it without going through a lengthy verification process. That way, even if you panic, you won’t be able to sell your stocks for quite some time, which will give you a chance to cool down and assess the situation rationally.
Other examples of precommitment include the following:
- Saving money in a retirement account with a penalty for withdrawing it early.
- Going to the library to study in order to avoid distractions, while also leaving your phone at home.
- Betting that you will give money to someone else if you fail to complete an important task by some self-imposed deadline.
- Telling friends that you decided to quit a certain habit that’s bad for your productivity or health.
- Taking a longer route to work to avoid walking past a store that sells some temptation that you want to avoid, such as food that will make you break your diet.
In addition, a well-known example of precommitment from Greek mythology appears in the story of Odysseus, whose ship sailed past the Sirens, creatures whose beautiful singing lured sailors to their death. Knowing of this danger in advance, Odysseus had his men plug their ears with wax, so they will be unable to hear the Sirens, and had himself tied firmly to the ship’s mast, so he will be able to hear the Sirens’ song but unable to move toward them.
Furthermore, a historical example of precommitment is its use as a strategy of deterrence used during the Cold War, where nations precommitted to responding to a nuclear attack against them with a nuclear attack of their own, as in the case of the Soviet Dead Hand system, which was a fail-deadly system meant to launch all of the USSR’s nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack against them. This extreme form of precommitment, which occurs when someone precommits to a very limited course of action by cutting off all their of their other available options, is sometimes also referred to as desperate ground strategy or death ground strategy.
Beyond this, another well-known historical example of precommitment occurred during Cortés’ attack on the Aztec empire. At the beginning of the expedition, men who were not loyal to Cortés decided to steal a ship and sail back home. After Cortés stopped the attempted mutiny, he sunk his own ships, in order to ensure that his men knew that they have no hopes of returning home in them, to ensure that they stayed committed to his preferred course of action.
Finally, another example of precommitment appeared in the Golden Balls game show, where each of two contestants, must, in secret, choose whether to split or steal the jackpot. Once both contestants make their choice, they reveal it. If they both chose to split, then they split the jackpot, whereas if they both chose to steal, then they get nothing. However, if one chose to split, and the other chose to steal, then the one who chose to split gets nothing, and the one who chose to steal gets everything.
In one episode of the show, one contestant told the other that he’s going to choose “Steal”, no matter what happens. He told the other contestant that nothing will change their mind, and therefore the only way that the other contestant could manage to get any money is by choosing to “Split”, in which case the contestant who chose “Steal” would give them half the money after the show was over. He said that if the other contestant rejected this deal and also chose “Steal”, they were both guaranteed to get nothing.
The precommitment here was risky, because it was possible that the other contestant will choose to “Steal” anyway, out of spite. However, the strategy worked in the end, since after a long argument, the second contestant agreed to pick “Split”, and during the final reveal of their decision it turned out that the first contestant also picked “Split”, so they both got paid equally.
Note: precommitment often relies on the use of a specific precommitment (or commitment) device, which is something that locks you into the course of action that you want to follow. It can take various forms, such as a verbal statement, a signed contract, or a physical action.
The benefits of precommitment
The key benefit of precommitment, particularly in the psychological context, is that it allows you to commit to an optimal course of action when you’re in a proper mental state, if you know that in the future you might be tempted to act otherwise, due to things such as environmental influences, strong emotions, or changes in mood. For example, if you know that you should see a dentist in a few months, and that the closer you are to the appointment date the more afraid of it you’ll be and the more likely you are to avoid scheduling the appointment, then you can schedule it far in advance, while you’re still fairly unafraid, and pay a deposit to ensure you show up to the appointment.
Essentially, precommitment helps you make sure that you’ll act in a way that aligns with your values and long-term goals, even in the face of issues such as short-term temptations and impulsivity. This can help you successfully exert self-control, and consequently engage in good behaviors and habits, such as exercising or studying, or avoid bad behaviors and habits, such as addiction and procrastination. Furthermore, precommitment can help you follow through on other types of behaviors, such as spending money on fun things when you know that you will save it otherwise, even though spending it will be more beneficial.
Precommitting can also be beneficial from a general social perspective, by showing others that you’re truly committed to a certain course of action, which might encourage them to do things such as support you or provide you with resources.
In addition, precommitment has various potential benefits in the context of game theory. For example, when an army burns bridges behind them while advancing, this can motivate the troops of the invading army, because they know that retreat is not an option, and can demotivate the defending army, because it shows that the invaders are fully committed to the attack
The use of precommitment in this context can therefore be especially beneficial in making your threats appear more credible in various situations, such as when bargaining with someone, for example if you can precommit to walking away from the negotiation unless they meet certain demands.
Note: precommitment is usually performed by an individual (or a single organization), though it’s also possible for a group of individuals to precommit themselves collectively to a certain course of action, which can sometimes help ensure cooperation between them.
Caveats about precommitment
There are several caveats about precommitment that are important to keep in mind when choosing whether and how to use this technique.
First, it’s possible to precommit to the wrong course of action. For example, this can happen when you precommit to some decision early on, and then discover—too late—that a potential course of action that you eliminated would have been better.
Second, even when you precommit to the optimal course of action, you might still lose in some way, because of something that you had no way to know about without following that course of action. For example, this can happen when you precommit to a position in a negotiation, and the other person ends up declining your offer because another person—that you couldn’t have known about—is willing to offer them a better alternative.
Third, even when you precommit to the right course of action, the precommitment itself might not be perfect, as you might still be able to avoid the right course of action in some way. For example, this can happen if you make some option must harder—but not impossible—to choose, which means that if the temptation is strong enough, you’ll still pick it even though you know that doing so is wrong. This is especially problematic if the precommitment makes you overly confident, which in turn leads you to take unnecessary risks that result in you failing to following through on your commitment.
In addition, precommitment isn’t always the best course of action. For example, when it comes to negotiations and strategic situations, it may sometimes be better to leave more options available to yourself, or to avoid revealing your strategy to your opponent.
Finally, when used in negotiations and similar interactions, precommitment can lead to various social issues, such as escalation of conflicts among the parties involved. In this regard, precommitment is associated with brinkmanship, which is the strategy of pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself. Specifically, these two strategies are related to each other because people’s precommitment often involves brinkmanship, by putting them in a risky situation, particularly in the context of game theory.
How to use precommitment
To use precommitment effectively, you should first understand what this technique involves, and what are the potential benefits and dangers associated with it.
Then, ask yourself what are your goals for using precommitment, and where, when, and how you can use it most effectively. When doing this, you should consider not only how precommitment can help you achieve your goals, but also associated factors, such as how risky it is to use it, and what are the costs of using it, in terms of resources such as time, effort, and money.
For example, if your goal is to use precommitment to quit a bad habit, you can figure out what’s the best way to prevent yourself from engaging in it, taking into account factors such as how you engage in it in the first place. Alternatively, if your goal is to use precommitment to strengthen your position in a negotiation, you can think about how you can precommit and communicate your precommitment in a way that will strengthen your position the most.
Note: you can bluff about your precommitment in contexts such as negotiations, by pretending to precommit in cases where you haven’t actually done so. This has some potential benefits, such as allowing you to adapt your course of action, but also carries some potential downsides, such as making your precommitment appear less convincing, as well as potential dangers, such as reducing your credibility in the long term.
How to respond to precommitment
If someone uses precommitment as a strategy against you, for example during a negotiation, you should first assess the nature of their precommitment, including factors such as:
- How they precommitted themselves.
- How committed they are (e.g., can they still change their course of action, and if so, how difficult would it be).
- Whether there’s a chance that they’re bluffing about their precommitment.
- What they’re hoping to achieve by precommitting.
You can get this information in various ways, such as observing them, talking to them, talking to people familiar with them, or considering their past behavior.
Once you understand their precommitment, you can choose the optimal way to respond, based on the options available to you and what you hope to achieve yourself. For example, you might decide to call their bluff, if you don’t think they’re truly committed, to escalate the situation by precommitting yourself, if you think that your own commitment will give you a stronger position, or by giving in to their demands, if you think that doing so is more beneficial than not.
Summary and conclusions
- Precommitment is a technique where you intentionally limit the future options available to you, in order to ensure your commitment to some course of action.
- For example, precommitment can involve deleting someone’s number from your phone to avoid contacting them, or stating that you’ll absolutely walk away from a negotiation unless a certain demand of yours is met.
- Precommitment can help you ensure that you act in a way that aligns with your values and goals, especially in the face of issues such as temptations, and can have other benefits, such as improving your position in negotiations.
- Precommitment also carries some potential risks, including committing too early to the wrong course of action, taking unnecessary risks due to flawed precommitment combined with overconfidence, and escalating social conflicts in situations such as negotiations.
- To use precommitment effectively, you should understand what this technique involves, including its potential benefits and dangers, and choose your preferred form of precommitment based on your goals, as well as where, when, and how you can use this technique.
The concept of precommitment is discussed, together with other relevant strategies, in “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life“. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.