Can your long term commitments survive big change?
Welcome to (a slightly extended edition of) The Makers and a very warm welcome to new subscribers joining us this week. You can read previous issues here.
The aim of The Makers is to share ideas to help you engage more positively and purposefully with the future. It accompanies the YouTube channel Ours For The Making.
Today I’m going to share with you:
- The perils of commitment devices – and what it means for your long term commitments
- This week’s introduction: should you be future-proof or future-fit?
- Future jam today: Talking about the end.
1. The perils of commitment devices ⛓️
What the long term reveals about your commitments.
The other day, I was listening to a podcast from the RSA with Lionel Shriver discussing her latest book, Should We Stay or Should We Go?
The book is about a couple who make a pact to end their lives at 80 and explores 12 different possible plot conclusions.
For instance, what happens if the couple tries to end their lives but the ‘potion’ only works for one of them? (The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ dilema, perhaps?) Or, what if their kids think their parents’ plan is bonkers and have them institutionalised before the pact is enacted? What if they wind up taking a totally different path and through the marvels of medicine end up living forever?
Essentially, the whole book flows from the couple’s decision to try and force a certain future using something called a ‘commitment device’.
A ‘commitment device’ is a decision you take, when of calm mind, that fixes you to a particular future path. It’s a deliberate attempt to ‘bind your hands’. The purpose is to avoid your choosing something undesirable in the heat of that future moment.
In the couple’s case, the future they’re seeking to avoid with their commitment device is one where they believe, by the arbitrary age of 80, they’ll have become a burdensome dependent on family and the state. And besides, they reason, the world will have gone to pot by then and won’t be worth living in.
Odysseus and Sirens
An ancient example of a commitment device is Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’ encounter with a pair of sirens.
Odysseus and his crewmen are sailing for home, but the journey is a treacherous one. Circe warns him of the land of two sirens. “Anyone who in ignorance hears their alluring voices is doomed” she counsels.
Circe advises Odysseus to stuff the ears of his crewmen with beeswax and that they lash him fast to the ship’s mast so that he might listen to the sirens’ “exquisite music”.
He takes Circe’s counsel. The crewmen’s ears are plugged and Odysseus is bound to the mast. He listens to the siren’s haunting melodies and, as predicted, begs to be untied.
His crewmen dutifully ignore Odysseus and their ship sails safely onwards without being lured onto the rocks. The commitment device works.
A somewhat colder example is that of Han Xin, a general in ancient China who went undefeated on the battlefield. He would deliberately place his soldiers with a river behind them so they had no escape and no choice but to fight the enemy.
The assumptions baked into your commitments
One of the interesting things about commitment devices is that the person using them is (perhaps unwittingly) baking in certain assumptions.
For example, one assumption is that the world in the (possibly far) future will be the same as it is today, or the same as it is predicted.
Another assumption is that the person using the commitment device expects to feel the same in the future about, well, everything. They are essentially freezing in aspic the idea that their future-self will value the same things and in the same way they do today (and with the same burning intensity that drove them to use a commitment device in the first place).
These assumptions don’t really present issues when the time horizon is short (say, for Odysseus or Han Xin). But over longer periods of time, the problems of what I call ‘extended now-sightedness‘ – a belief that today’s trends and assumptions will simply continue to hold into the future – begin to reveal themselves.
You, and you forever?
Psychologists have found that there’s a problem with believing you’ll be the same person in the future as you are today. Your preferences, outlooks, tastes and so on, really do change (and continue to change) over time – and by more than you imagine.
According to research by Dr. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard, people are really quite bad at predicting who they will be in the future.
The reason, Gilbert suggests, is simple: it’s far easier to remember the past than to imagine the future. We can (more readily) recall past change but struggle to imagine change in the future.
The result is that we consistently under-estimate how much we’ll alter in the years to come. And the fascinating thing is that regardless of our current age, we seem to hold the erroneous illusion that we’ve arrived at who we will be for the rest of our lives. Gilbert and his colleagues call this phenomenon the “End of History Illusion.”
Bottom line: your likes, dislikes, proclivities and preferences will not be the same in 10, 20 years time as they are today. And they’ll have changed by more than you imagine.
So, what does this mean if you use a commitment device over a longer time period – perhaps decades? (Or put another way, what does it mean for your long term commitments?)
An illustration of what long term commitments looks like in, er, theory…
The English philosopher, Derek Parfit devised a thought experiment called “the Nineteenth-Century Russian” to tease some of these issues out into the open.
Parfit imagined a youthful Russian Aristocrat – privileged, landed – who firmly wishes to transfer his entire future inheritance to the peasantry immediately at the point in time at which he inherits.
The nobleman’s reasoning? He fervently believes in socialism. And he fears his principles will wither with age and so, by the time he actually inherits, he’ll opt to keep the lot.
Since his father is relatively young and in good health, the point in time when he expects to inherit still lies some way off. So, he draws up a document to be counter-signed by his wife. He implores her to uphold his current wishes.
This attempt to bind the Aristocrat’s future hands using a commitment device opens up a whole tin of moral turmoil.
In an article for The New Philosopher “The Stranger Up Ahead” (December 2019), the philosopher Patrick Stokes explores the twists and turns that this decision sets in train. Stokes writes:
Imagine you’re the wife in this scenario. Decades have passed, the old lord has finally passed, and your husband has inherited his vast estates. He now begs you to overrule that silly document he made all those years ago – why, he was just a boy, really, and what did that callow youth know of the ways of the world?(Patrick Stokes)
So, what should the Aristocrat’s wife do? Uphold the wishes of her husband’s past-self? Or adhere to the wishes of his present self? Which of her husband’s selves should hold sway? The ‘rational’ young Aristocrat? Or his ‘rational’ older self? And what does the wife’s decision mean for any future commitments the couple make to each other?
Can your long term commitments survive change?
The challenge for long term commitments is essentially formed of two parts:
- External change. The world in the future might become unrecognisable, rendering your earlier contract irrelevant, daft, impossible or dangerous.
- Internal change. You’ve changed so much as a person that your future-self rejects being held to ransom by a decision made years earlier by yourself in your ‘naive’ youth. Stokes also notes that making rigid, long term commitments fails to accommodate possible ‘transformative experiences’. These “will change our very conception of what is worth choosing.” ‘World turned-upside-down’ moments, if you like. (He cites ‘having children’ as an example.)
So, how can you respond to the central problem of ‘change’ that the long term exposes in all our commitments?
Strong commitments, loosely held
Perhaps the best advice I’ve encountered is to follow a twist on Stanford forecaster, Paul Saffo’s process of having “strong opinions; weakly held.“
Saffo describes the “strong opinion” part as to “allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect.” (So, in our context, ‘strong opinions’ become ‘strong commitments’.)
But, remember that woven into any central commitment (e.g. dispersing your inheritance or ending it all when you turn 80) is a second commitment. This is the “weakly held” part in Saffo’s process. He recommends that you set out to prove yourself wrong. “Engage in creative doubt.”
After all, why should the Aristocrat continue to believe handing out his inheritance directly to the peasants will achieve his aims of reducing inequality in Nineteenth-Century Russia? What if, by the time he inherits, inequality has been overtaken by another far more pressing social ill? Is it not reasonable to take another look and check whether his course of action is still wise, or at least consistent with his original intent?
On a slight aside, I personally prefer ‘loosely’ to ‘weakly’ when it comes to commitments. It strikes me that we choose to hold something ‘loosely’. However, it is not us, but our failing strength, that dictates we hold something ‘weakly’. I’d also add that “loosely” perhaps suggests a willingness on our part to let go, should circumstances suggest that might be wise.
So, what might ‘loosely held’ mean in practice?
Perhaps some kind of review, reality check or refresh of your commitment over time? This at least would permit and empower your future self to re-evaluate and, if the facts change, change their mind.
And so, ‘strong opinions; weakly held’ becomes: ‘strong commitments; loosely held.”
So, where does this all leave your long term commitments? Two points:
- First, don’t be afraid of forging ‘strong commitments’, even if they reach far up the uncertain track of time.
- Second, remain in ‘creative doubt’ about whether your original commitment remains valid.
I appreciate that this might feel a bit like a cop out – giving yourself some ‘just-in-case’ wiggle-room. After all, when does a commitment become nothing more than just the latest iteration of long-since-forgotten original intention?
But, the “strong commitments; loosely held” approach acknowledges (and doesn’t idly ignore) this reality: that things do change, you change and unimaginable things – good and bad – can and do just waltz into your life unannounced, up-ending all you thought you knew or cared about.
We can’t just pretend change doesn’t happen, so we need some way to accommodate it. For Lionel Shriver’s determine couple, 12 different possible endings is that accommodation. Although, I imagine that only scratched the surface.
If you use commitment devices or have any other good examples, I’d love to hear from you. Just hit reply to this email.
2. This week’s introduction 🤝
This Long Term Short considers (in less than 60 seconds): what is the difference between ‘future-proof’ and ‘future-fit’?
Note: There will be a slight intermission to the programme of weekly long term shorts as I focus on finalising some longer videos that will be appear on the Ours For The Making YouTube channel soon.
3. Future jam today 😋
As mentioned above, the Bridges to the Future podcast from the RSA, with Lionel Shriver discussing Should We Stay or Should We Go, is a great discussion about a long term topic that can be difficult to broach and discuss, but one that’s deeply relevant to us all.
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Until next time…