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Willpower and Personal Rules

  • Bénabou, Roland
  • Tirole, Jean

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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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 3143.

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Date of creation: Jan 2002
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:3143
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  1. Ernst Fehr & Klaus M. Schmidt, . "Theories of Fairness and Reciprocity - Evidence and Economic Applications," IEW - Working Papers 075, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  2. Roland Bénabou & Jean Tirole, 2002. "Self-Confidence and Personal Motivation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(3), pages 871-915.
  3. Henry Farber, 2003. "Is Tomorrow Another Day? The Labor Supply of New York Cab Drivers," NBER Working Papers 9706, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Becker, Gary S & Grossman, Michael & Murphy, Kevin M, 1991. "Rational Addiction and the Effect of Price on Consumption," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(2), pages 237-41, May.
  5. Ted O'Donoghue and Matthew Rabin ., 1997. "Doing It Now or Later," Economics Working Papers 97-253, University of California at Berkeley.
  6. Drew Fudenberg & David M. Kreps, 1987. "Reputation in the Simultaneous Play of Multiple Opponents," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 54(4), pages 541-568.
  7. Richard H. Thaler & Shlomo Benartzi, 2004. "Save More Tomorrow (TM): Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(S1), pages S164-S187, February.
  8. Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., 2001. "Theories of Fairness and Reciprocity," Discussion Papers in Economics 14, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  9. Roland Benabou & Jean Tirole, 2000. "Self-Confidence and Social Interactions," NBER Working Papers 7585, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Battaglini, Marco & Benabou, Roland & Tirole, Jean, 2005. "Self-control in peer groups," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 123(2), pages 105-134, August.
  11. Richard H. Thaler, 2008. "Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 27(1), pages 15-25, 01-02.
  12. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, 2001. "Time Inconsistent Preferences in Adam Smith and David Hume," Working Papers 2001-19, Brown University, Department of Economics.
  13. Orphanides, Athanasios & Zervos, David, 1995. "Rational Addiction with Learning and Regret," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 103(4), pages 739-58, August.
  14. Shlomo Benartzi & Richard Thaler, 2004. "Save more tomorrow: Using behavioral economics to increase employee saving," Natural Field Experiments 00337, The Field Experiments Website.
  15. Schelling, Thomas C, 1978. "Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 68(2), pages 290-94, May.
  16. Thaler, Richard H & Shefrin, H M, 1981. "An Economic Theory of Self-Control," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(2), pages 392-406, April.
  17. Matthew Rabin., 1995. "Moral Preferences, Moral Constraints, and Self-Serving Biases," Economics Working Papers 95-241, University of California at Berkeley.
  18. Gary S. Becker & Kevin M. Murphy, 1986. "A Theory of Rational Addiction," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 41, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
  19. repec:pri:indrel:473 is not listed on IDEAS
  20. Schelling, Thomas C, 1984. "Self-Command in Practice, in Policy, and in a Theory of Rational Choice," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(2), pages 1-11, May.
  21. Henry S. Farber, 2003. "Is Tomorrow Another Day? The Labor Supply Of New York Cab Drivers," Working Papers 110, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Center for Economic Policy Studies..
  22. B. Douglas Bernheim & Michael D. Whinston, 1990. "Multimarket Contact and Collusive Behavior," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 21(1), pages 1-26, Spring.
  23. Juan D. Carrillo & Thomas Mariotti, 2000. "Strategic Ignorance as a Self-Disciplining Device," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 67(3), pages 529-544.
  24. Loewenstein, George, 1996. "Out of Control: Visceral Influences on Behavior," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 65(3), pages 272-292, March.
  25. Henry S. Farber, 2003. "Is Tomorrow Another Day? The Labor Supply of New York City Cab Drivers," Working Papers 852, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
  26. Laibson, David I., 1997. "Golden Eggs and Hyperbolic Discounting," Scholarly Articles 4481499, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  27. repec:pri:cepsud:92farber is not listed on IDEAS
  28. Klaus Wertenbroch, 1998. "Consumption Self-Control by Rationing Purchase Quantities of Virtue and Vice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 17(4), pages 317-337.
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