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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. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, 2001. "Time Inconsistent Preferences in Adam Smith and David Hume," Working Papers 2001-19, Brown University, Department of Economics.
  2. Laibson, David I., 1997. "Golden Eggs and Hyperbolic Discounting," Scholarly Articles 4481499, Harvard University Department of Economics.
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  8. 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.
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  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. R. Benabou & J. Tirole, 1999. "Self-Confidence and Social Interactions," Princeton Economic Theory Papers 00s2, Economics Department, Princeton University.
  12. Richard Thaler, 1985. "Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 4(3), pages 199-214.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. Carrillo, Juan D & Mariotti, Thomas, 2000. "Strategic Ignorance as a Self-Disciplining Device," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 67(3), pages 529-44, July.
  16. Gary S.Grossman Becker & Michael Murphy & Kevin M., 1991. "Rational Addiction and the Effect of Price on Consumption," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 68, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
  17. Rabin, Matthew, 1995. "Moral Preferences, Moral Constraints, and Self-Serving Biases," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt97r6t5vf, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  18. Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., 2001. "Theories of Fairness and Reciprocity," Discussion Papers in Economics 14, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  19. Fudenberg, Drew & Kreps, David M, 1987. "Reputation in the Simultaneous Play of Multiple Opponents," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 54(4), pages 541-68, October.
  20. Roland Bénabou & Jean Tirole, 2002. "Self-Confidence And Personal Motivation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 117(3), pages 871-915, August.
  21. Schelling, Thomas C, 1978. "Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 68(2), pages 290-94, May.
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