Commitments and Consequences

These things used to be work: Making soap. Growing vegetables. Writing newspaper editorials. Writing for an encyclopedia. Sewing clothing. Making cheese. Translating speech. Sorting business documents.

But now, people do them for fun. Some people blog for money, but most don’t make a living off it. Still, every article written can steal time and attention from one by a paid newspaper writer. Nobody gets paid to write for Wikipedia. There are still paid translators, but at TED.com, if you are bilingual you can upload subtitles of presentations just for the personal pleasure of doing it. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service lets people do simple, usually repetitive, tasks. They get a token sum of money, but most of the compensation is, what? the entertainment? the relief from boredom? a sense of something to do? I’m not really certain.

I’ve asked myself why people find things fun that used to be work. The first answer that popped into my head was the word “consequences”. Growing a vegetable garden today is relaxing and rewarding. Even if it’s a complete disaster, you’re not going to starve to death. But growing one at basically any other time in human history was a job, not a hobby, because if anything went wrong, there were consequences.

If I don’t submit a blog post today, no big deal. But if I worked for a newspaper and didn’t meet my deadline, then there would be trouble. No consequences means that tasks that were formerly drudgery are now enjoyable.

But then it occurred to me that the opposite is also true. Some people watch sports games for fun. But others say that games are more fun to watch when they’ve got “something riding on it”. A small gamble makes the game interesting, because now there are personal consequences to its outcome, where formerly there were none.

Maybe they are just justifying their desire to gamble. Or maybe they are right. I’m not certain, but I know that watching stocks I own is more interesting than ones I don’t.

The ideas that (1) having no commitment to the success of something makes it fun and (2) having total commitment makes it no fun, in my mind helps to explain having “a little something” committed makes it even more fun than either of the other two cases. When you are totally committed, you’re in as much danger as possible. And when you have no commitment, you are completely safe. Therefore, to move from having nothing “riding on it” to having “a little something” riding on it brings you closer to danger (which is exciting) but not so close as to cause you grief if anything goes seriously wrong.

Perhaps difficulty in judging where the peak level of commitment lies helps to explain a lot of risk-taking behavior, from gambling to Tiger Woods’ escapades. I don’t want to blog about politics (mostly because I don’t think I can compete with the big political blogs), but it also makes me wonder whether this might have some relevance to immigration reform. Obama has proposed that illegal immigrants be given a lawful resident status if they pay back taxes and learn English. Other people just want to kick illegal immigrants out.

Maybe part of the problem lies in the middling level of commitment many illegal immigrants might have to the United States. Fearful of being deported, and knowing that they don’t have access to many institutions (from federal loans to Social Security) if they stay, it’s not surprising that an illegal immigrant might not have the same loyalty to the U.S. as a legal immigrant or a native-born citizen.

If that’s the case, then maybe rather than telling illegal immigrants they can’t stay, instead make them promise to not leave. I don’t have all the contingencies worked out, but according to legend, when Cortez landed in Mexico he burned his ships to send a powerful message to his men: Take the Aztec capital, or you die in the jungle. There’s no going backward, only forward. Maybe if illegal immigrants were offered the choice between going back home, or staying in the US for the rest of their lives, those who stayed would be more committed to the US.

I think that the idea that partial commitment maximizes happiness might also help to explain rising divorce rates over the past few decades, but I haven’t given this (or the illegal immigration angle, for that matter) much thought. So, there’s no real conclusion here – This is still a work in progress.

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