commitment devices and my television problem

Commitment devices are important.  A friend of mine met a woman in Kenya who planted her sweet potatoes so that they would be ready to harvest just when she needed to pay school fees for her children: that way she wouldn’t be tempted the money from selling the vegetables on other things.  In a project in Tanzania providing cash subsidies to poor families, women asked for the cash subsidies to be conditional on keeping their children in school as a commitment device to use the money well.

When I travel, I’m not very good with television.  I get tired of the silence in the hotel room and end up turning on the tv to have some sound but end up watching more than is optimal.  So I was pleased to see, in my Freetown hotel, that my tv was on a stand with wheels.  A perfect opportunity for a commitment device!  I asked the staff member who brought me to my room if the tv could be removed.  The woman politely explained to me that if I don’t want to watch tv, I can just not turn it on.  I said, I know, but I’d love to just not have it in the room.  I explained my commitment problem; why not?  Can you remove it?  We went and asked the manager, who said, “This is very strange.  I have never had a guest request this before.  If you don’t want to watch the tv, then just don’t turn it on.”  The staff woman explained my commitment challenge to the manager.  He sent another staff member with me to the room to help me.

When we arrived, the man said, “But it’s already off!”  He had been under the impression that the tv was on and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.  “But if you don’t want to watch…”  Yes, I know.  “The people with the key to the store[room] come tomorrow, so we can do it tomorrow.”  Fine.  I unplugged the tv and rolled it into the closet: out of sight, out of mind.  That seemed to largely alleviate my commitment problem, so I didn’t follow up.

A couple of days later, I told the manager that I had resolved my problem.  He answered, “Oh yes, I spoke with the proprietor.  She said, ‘If he doesn’t want to watch tv, he should just leave it off.'”  Oh.  Now I get it.

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