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Willpower and Personal Rules

  • Roland Benabou and Jean Tirole

This Paper studies the internal commitment mechanisms or ‘personal rules’ (diets, exercise regimens, resolutions, moral or religious precepts, etc.) through which people seek to achieve self-control. Our theory is based on the idea of self-reputation over one’s willpower, which potentially transforms lapses in a personal rule into precedents that undermine future self-restraint. The foundation for such effects, in turn, is the imperfect recall of past motives and feelings, which leads people to draw inferences from their own past actions. We thus model the behaviour of individuals who are unsure of their willpower (ability to delay ratification) in certain states of the world, and show how self-control can be sustained by the fear of creating damaging precedents. We also show, however, that people will sometimes adopt excessively rigid rules that result in compulsive behaviours such as miserliness, workaholism, or anorexia. These represent costly forms of self-signaling where the individual is so afraid of appearing weak to himself that every decision becomes a test of his willpower, even when self-restraint is not even desirable ex-ante. Such common behaviours which appear to display a ‘salience of the future’ are thus not only consistent, but actually generated by (a concern over) present-oriented preferences. Finally, we analyse the cognitive underpinnings of self-regulation. We first show how equilibrium behaviour is shaped by the extent to which the individual’s self-monitoring is subject to opportunistic distortions of memory or attribution. We then study how recall and inference processes can themselves be endogenously determined through the use of self-sustaining cognitive rules and resolutions.

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Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal Journal of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 112 (2004)
Issue (Month): 4 (August)
Pages: 848-886

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jpolec:v:112:y:2004:i:4:p:848-886
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/JPE/

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  1. Matthew Rabin., 1995. "Moral Preferences, Moral Constraints, and Self-Serving Biases," Economics Working Papers 95-241, University of California at Berkeley.
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