Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Self-Control Software

On the Firefox Add-ins page, I found an interesting add-in called LeechBlock:
LeechBlock is a simple productivity tool designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. (You know: the ones that rhyme with 'Blue Cube', 'Hash Pot', 'Sticky Media', and the like.) All you need to do is specify which sites to block, between which time periods, and on which days of the week. You can specify up to four sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set. You can even set a password for access to the extension options, just to slow you down in moments of weakness!
In other words, LeechBlock is voluntary self-control software that you can use as a complement or substitute for internal willpower. The existence of devices like this – as well as other personal strategies such as banning potato chips from the house and committing in advance to having income deposited in an IRA – is sometimes cited by behavioral economists as evidence of imperfect rationality. And indeed they are. It doesn’t make sense for a rational person to deliberately reduce his own options, and even pay a price to do so, when he could simply ignore the unwanted options later.

But while strategies like these are evidence of imperfect rationality, they are simultaneously evidence of the solution. People have at least some awareness of their own weaknesses, and they take actions to mitigate them. It is even possible to overcorrect oneself; we all know people whose rigid personal rules prevent them from having spontaneous fun, for instance. This is one reason why the leap from behavioral economics to paternalistic policies is a non sequitur: paternalism is unnecessary to the extent that people correct themselves.

Of course, not all people correct themselves, and those who do may not do so optimally. But the reality of self-correction erases the presumption that paternalist policies will even push people in the right direction at the margin. Some people will have corrected optimally, others undercorrected, and others overcorrected. An effective paternalist policy would have to account for (among many other things) the extent and distribution of self-correction efforts in real-world contexts. Experimental results showing cognitive biases in laboratory contexts cannot provide that kind of information.


Tim Kowal said...

I don't understand why this is "imperfect rationality." Perhaps I misunderstand the term. But it seems perfectly rational for one to recognize that, in certain circumstances, his values will be skewed from what they normally are, such that he makes decisions that do not serve his overal interests. For example, I recognize that when I am confronted with an engaging albeit whimsical website, I will allow myself to conceive of all the reasons I should indulge, and discourage myself from thinking about or mitigate all the reasons I should not. Why not, if I can, impose a mechanism whereby I am forced to think more "normally" about the values involved?

I think it comes down to the time dimension. It is never rational to eliminate choices if our only consideration is the present moment. But as long as we realize that we must not only maximize our happiness and well-being through time, not just in the present moment, it is perfectly rational to recognize those sorts of circumstances in which we are prone to maximize instantaneous happiness at the expense of overall life sum of happiness.


Glen Whitman said...

Tim -- your view of rationality is perfectly consistent with the way most non-economists think about it (if they think about it). A rational person is someone who recognizes their own weaknesses and finds a way to cope with them, right?

But this is at odds with the notion of rationality used in mainstream economics. Rationality there means always acting consistently with your true preferences. If you occasionally succumb to temptations even when doing so is not consistent with your preferences, then you're not acting rationally. You should be able to survey the options and pick the one that is really best (again, given your preferences). The presence of additional options should not hurt you.

To be clear, I think your common-sense notion of rationality deserves a more prominent place in economics. But we're not there yet.