The Tara Treatment Center Blog

Odysseus on Commitment Devices

Getting Committed 

Hernando Cortez infamously burned his ships when he arrived in the Americas.  He knew that survival would be difficult in the short term but rewarding in the long term.  He eliminated the option of making a short-sighted decision (like sailing back home) based on the temporary discomfort of his men.  

What better demonstration of commitment than burning the ships you sailed in on?


Commitment Device Commitment Devices are often symbolic



Commitment devices in addiction

The struggle to act in accordance with our higher values is an ancient problem. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle created their own term for this failure of the will.

The Greeks called it ‘akrasia’ and it involves procrastination, lack of self-control, failing to finish projects, and addictive behavior.

According to Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, a commitment device is  a means of ensuring that you follow through with a plan that you know is best in the long run.  


A commitment device is a technique which helps us act in our own long-term interest


For the most part, we know what is best for us. We know that we should work out and diet to be healthy, engage in puzzles and reading to expand our minds, and practice meditation to reduce stress.

We have a pretty good–if only basic— idea of what we need to do to achieve our goals, but fail to act in the best interest of achieving those goals.  When we give into our temptations at the expense of our goals, it is a problem of follow-through.


More ‘traditional’ commitment devices

We use commitment devices everyday to work towards our personal goals and strive for self-improvement.  A commitment device may include the following mechanics:

  • Creating larger obstacles to temptations to increase the costs of temptations.
  • Making your commitment public, so your reputation may be affected.
  • Making a bet or monetary contract with someone to increase the benefit of keeping your promise.
  • In substance abuse, taking a medication like Vivitrol (Naltrexone), which may act as a commitment device.

Economists have long assumed that, by definition, we do the things we want to do in life. This theory is sometimes called ‘revealed preference’.  Social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists are familiar with this psychological principle and quirk of the human mind: what we want depends on when we’re doing the wanting.  


‘Time inconsistency’

Is a psychological term describing our tendency to want different things at different times.  This principle is nicely illustrated in a study on grocery-buying habits: When we buy groceries online for delivery tomorrow, we buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables.  When we order for next week, we’re more likely to make healthier choices.

Our ability to weigh costs and benefits is heavily affected when some of those costs are immediate, and some are not.

Opiate and alcohol addiction affects people physically and psychologically. If you are seeking medication as part of your treatment plan, consider Vivitrol. This is a non-addictive, once-monthly treatment proven to help reduce cravings in alcohol and opioid dependent patients when used with counseling.  


A Siren Statue

Tying yourself to the mast of the ship

Perhaps the best example of a psychological commitment device is the story of Odysseus.  Aware of the tempting sirens who sing a bewitching song on a particular island, Odysseus had his crew plug their ears with beeswax to prepare for their journey near the island.  Odysseus wanted to hear the singing sirens, but knew that many men had met their fate by such tempting distractions.  Sirens were known for luring men overboard into the water to drown.

Commitment Device

A Siren tempting Odysseus to abandon his goals.

Odysseus tied himself to the mast of his ship, heard the song, and pleaded with his crew to release him from the mast.   He cursed his men for refusing to release him to pursue the siren’s song.  It was an agonizing experience for all. 

Daniel Goldstein discusses the conflict between our present and future selves in terms of the Odyssey.

Many psychologists believe that Odysseus’ suffering on the mast is meant as a metaphor for our own struggles against our temptations in life.  Are we Odysseus, subjecting ourselves to unnecessary suffering?  Or his first mate, tempted to relieve his friend’s suffering based on a short-term judgment?  Perhaps we are both.


 VIVITROL [prescribing information and medication guide]. Waltham, MA: Alkermes, Inc; rev December 2015.