Last week, the folks at Freakonomics posted an interesting podcast (“Save Me From Myself”) about commitment devices. A commitment device is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” For instance, they open the podcast by discussing Tony Balandran, a Missouran and gambling addict who signed up for Missouri’s lifetime self-exlusion list, which meant that if he was caught gambling at a casino, he could be (and was) forced to give up his winnings and subject to criminal sanctions (Interestingly, Missouri has recently changed the way that this list operates). As Steve Levitt explained on the blog post accompanying the podcast,
Sometimes it’s the case that people know that their future version of themselves will want to follow a behavior that their current version of themselves is not comfortable with.
The Freakonomics folks then end the podcast with an even more interesting example: (1) states which have adopted mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence (where police responding to a DV call have to arrest the alleged abuser upon a finding of probable cause even if the alleged victim is opposed to the arrest); and (2) states which have no-drop policies for domestic violence (where the prosecution won’t drop a DV case, even if the alleged victim wants the charges dropped or refuses to cooperate).
In a sense, both of these policies are (externally imposed) commitment devices because domestic violence victims who are aware of them commit themselves to seeing their abuser arrested and possibly prosecuted when they call 911 even though their future selves might not be willing or able to follow through.
So, what’s the effect when a jurisdiction adopts a no-drop policy? Well, according to the paper, Love, hate and murder: Commitment devices in violent relationships, by Anna Aizer and Pedro Dal Bó, it is not a significant drop in violence against women. But the adoption of such a policy does lead to a significant increase in the reporting of DV, and, more interestingly, it leads to a significant decrease in the number of men murdered by intimates. In other words, the commitment device of a no-drop policy does not cause men to commit (m)any less acts of domestic violence, but it does lead a significant number of women to report such DV when those women otherwise (1) wouldn’t have trusted themselves to follow through with the prosecution of their abusers, and (2) would have, in a signifiant number of cases, murder their abusers.