L3: Self-control problems

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Almost everyone struggles to act in their individual and collective best interests, particularly when doing so requires forgoing a more immediately enjoyable alternative. Self-control failures contribute to a range of policy issues, from educational achievement and retirement savings to the obesity epidemic and the promotion of subjective well-being. 

Please watch the following video in which David Laibson discusses present bias in behavioral economics and how to change that behavior (note: at min 25.57 he briefly presents  the paper we have seen in lecture 1).

In the following video Antonio Rangel presents his research on how the brain computes and compares values to make simple choices. Antonio and his team also investigate how the workings of the decision-making system change in more complex forms of choice, such as decisions involving self-control.

What are the implications of this research? One example is healthy eating and choice architecture.

Finally, watch a video about the famous Marshmallow Test. In this popular test, several kids wrestle with waiting to eat a marshmallow in hopes of a bigger prize. This video is a good illustration of our daily battle against temptations and how important is willpower to resist to them.

Please now answer Assignment 3 based on the reading for this lecture.

Deadline: Friday, September 11, at 13:15.

Suggested answers available here after the deadline.

Please connect to my Zoom (link in Absalon) on Friday September 11, at 13:15


I will summarize the main ideas of this lecture and I will asnwer your questions.

After that you will have time to work online with your group. See below.

Group Work: Behavior Change Desired (go to Activity)

Articulate the specific (and measurable) behavior that you want to change as a result of the behavioral intervention.

  • What is the desired outcome of the intervention?
  • What specifically should it change as a result?

Identify the problem and behavior clearly. A well defined problem can increase the efficicacy of your intervention.

Together with your group, you have to fill the corresponding cell of this Google Spreadsheet. Deadline: before next lecture.

Summary for this lecture:

  • One of the most important bias we have is present bias. Present bias is the inclination to prefer a smaller present reward to a larger later reward, but reversing this preference when both rewards are equally delayed.
  • This dynamic inconsistency causes that people consistently fail to follow up on the plans they had made earlier: many people pledge to exercise more, eat healthier, become financially responsible or quit smoking starting next year but cannot follow through when the occasion arrives, to their own frustration.
  • Individuals that are fully aware of their present bias are “sophisticated”, whereas individuals that are unaware of this tendency are “naïve”. This distinction is crucial when we have to choose the tool(s) to tackle this failure of self-control.

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