I’ve previously argued that much – perhaps most – talk about “self-control” problems reflects social desirability bias rather than genuine inner conflict:

Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they “want to change” is that that’s what they’re supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he’s a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won’t admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentent. The drunk who says “I was such a fool!” gets some pity; the drunk who says “I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids” gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

Now some smart folks at Yale are putting my theory to the test:

Nalebuff thinks the weight loss will happen only if there is something of importance being risked….he suggested I enter into a contract in which I agree to pay him if I don’t drop some pounds. “As much as people don’t like to lose money, what they really don’t like to lose is their own money,” he said.

In fact, some of his Yale colleagues are in the final stages of launching a business based on this very concept. They have started a company called stickK.com that will allow people to take out a contract on themselves. They pick a price. If they don’t lose a certain amount of weight, they lose the money, either to a charity, friends or family.

If I’m right, this is going to remain a niche market. Most alcoholics and obese people don’t want to take out a contract on themselves because they don’t want to change – at least if change means being unpleasantly sober or hungry.

Even so, it’s great that this market exists. If someone tells you that he really wants to change, now you can tell him to put his money where his mouth is.

HT: Mankiw.