Limits of Willpower

Always on the lookout for behavioral principles in television, one of the latest episodes of Shark Tank delivered in an interesting way. They showcased an item that can be a helpful addition to behavior change procedures. It’s a “commitment device” called the kitchen safe (

According to the authors of Freakonomics, a commitment device is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” In other words, a commitment device forces you to engage in behavior that, given other options, you are unlikely choose. The kitchen safe works on this principle by selling customers a break-proof container that locks items away for a set amount of time. Things like, junk food, cell phones during dinner or keys after a drink.

The kitchen safe website describes our need for commitment devices as a “limit of willpower.” Since we use our brains for so many other more important decisions and choices, why not use a tool that will make this one decision for us? We know what we want our ultimate outcome to be, so why not use a commitment device to ensure that sneaky justifications don’t make their way into our heads while we are trying to engage in other things.

I’ve heard similar arguments about “decision-making”. Apparently our president doesn’t choose his breakfast or what he wears each day, instead he engages in the same routine behavior each morning wearing virtually the same thing in order to save his brain-power for other “running a country” type of decisions NBD. Given the fact that these explanations for our behavior are mentalistic (for more on this term see my page, “The Science”)  and therefore typically give me pause, I’ve rejected these theories in an effort to keep my science pure and free from those things that are too “fuzzy” to prove. After further research however, I’ve had to allow myself to believe that there is an effect on our observable and measurable behavior given what we ask our brains to do in a day.

What the research states is that we have a limited capacity to make complex choices in a day. Have you ever worked really hard in front of your computer all day to find that you have no desire to figure out what to eat for dinner in the evening and instead opt for eating that microwavable burrito? That is what we are talking about here.

In behavioral terms we call this an establishing operation (there are more details to this concept that are far too complex for this blog so, other BAs, please give me a pass on the oversimplification). This is Behavior 200 so bear with me on this one. An establishing operation is a state in which, under specific conditions, things are more or less reinforcing or punishing than they would normally be. Here is an easy example: lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is an establishing operation for most people’s behavior. It will change the reinforcing and punishing value of lots of different things throughout your day. People you normally like talking to will not be so entertaining therefore changing your behavior of talking to them. Going out for lunch won’t seems so appealing while that little noise that your air-conditioning makes will make you want to rip your hair out. The same concept is true for days filled with decision-making. The research tells us that we are more likely to engage in behaviors that are detrimental to our goals when we have too many decisions to make in a day. Suddenly behaviors like watching television are more reinforcing than they normally are. So commitment devices can reduce the effects that potential establishing operations related to decision-making-overload will have on your behavior.

So if you are suffering from a lack of sleep but know you should hit the gym for at least 30min after work, perhaps locking up that remote and cell phone will work. If you know you have a particularly challenging week at work ahead, perhaps you should think of saving a little bit of your budget for Blue Apron. If we understand the establishing operations affecting our lives, we can work to ensure that they don’t send us off track from our goals of living healthy and productive lives. Perhaps commitment devices can be a part of the solution to keep us on our paths.

The authors of Nudge argue that “when choice is complicated and difficult, people might greatly appreciate a sensible default.


Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.