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Willpower and the Optimal Control of Visceral Urges

Archived Abstract of Former PSC Researcher

Ozdenoren, Emre, Stephen Salant, and Daniel Silverman. 2006. "Willpower and the Optimal Control of Visceral Urges." NBER Working Paper 12278.

Common intuition and experimental psychology suggest that the ability to self-regulate, willpower, is a depletable resource. We investigate the behavior of an agent who optimally consumes a cake (or paycheck or workload) over time and who recognizes that restraining his consumption too much would exhaust his willpower and leave him unable to manage his consumption. Unlike prior models of self-control, a model with willpower depletion can explain the increasing consumption sequences observable in high frequency data (and corresponding laboratory findings), the apparent links between unrelated self-control behaviors, and the altered economic behavior following imposition of cognitive loads. At the same time, willpower depletion provides an alternative explanation for a taste for commitment, intertemporal preference reversals, and procrastination. Accounting for willpower depletion thus provides a more unified theory of time preference. It also provides an explanation for anomalous intratemporal behaviors such as low correlations between health-related activities.

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