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Game Theory and Keeping New Year's Resolutions

In his article "How Economics Can Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions," Mike Moffatt describes an application of game theory. The specific idea is "strategic precommitment," or a player's commitment to a unpleasant action or outcome unless he/she reaches a specific objective.

Moffatt System for New Year's Resolutions is as follows:

  • Pick a few resolutions (5?) of high priority to you.
  • The resolutions all must share a key property: They all must be something measureable. For example, "I'll solve five new recreational math problems every week."
  • Assign a "painful but plausible" amount of money you will pay for each resolution that is not met. For example, Moffatt suggests his payment amount is $400, in that it is painful but affordable "without dire consequences."
  • Make a short list of friends (5+) that you are comfortable sharing your resolutions.
  • Divide your amount of money by the number of friends (e.g. $400/5 = $80 per person).
  • Send a personal letter to each friend, stating that you will pay them the dollar amount (e.g. $80) for each unkept resolution.
Moffatt guarantees that "if you follow this system based on strategic precommitments you will have more successes than if you do not." The strategic precommitment aspect of game theory is at work here, because you have picked attainable goals and your payment threat is reasonable. As Moffatt concludes: "Keeping my word is more valuable to me than the money involved and my friends know that."