Enabling behavior through personal commitment statements: why do they work?

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We define and test three main hypotheses each examining a mechanism by which personal commitment statements may influence behavior: future-self continuity, disappointment or regret aversion, and present-biased preferences coupled with sophistication. A set of additional analyses are conducted exploring a personal commitment statement’s role as an enabling device that either increases, or is correlated with, intent to implement the desired behavior. Hypotheses are tested using data from a field experiment regarding public transit ridership. Results indicate that the strongest candidate mechanism for the effectiveness of a commitment statement to induce behavior change is the presence of present-biased preferences coupled with sophistication, or self-awareness of one’s own limitations in following through with effortful behaviors. In addition, results suggest that the preference for one commitment mechanism could indicate a general preference for commitment mechanisms, but the presence of one commitment mechanism may crowd out perceived need for or interest in other enabling steps.

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