The concept “egonomics” was introduced by Schelling in 1978, in his address to the American Economic Association. He was musing, in particular, on the ways in which people manage themselves either to do, or to avoid doing, particular activities or behaviors – the “tricks” they play on themselves in order to make unpleasant or difficult decisions unnecessary. Some of the examples he gave were to place the alarm clock at the other side of the room so it cannot be turned off without getting out of bed; to deliberately set watches a few minutes ahead of time to avoid being constantly late; to be committed to weekly payments into a Christmas Club to make saving easier and savings less readily accessible during the rest of the year and, at the extreme, to dieters having their jaws wired up in order to avoid the temptation of food. Putting things out of reach, or the self-promise of a small reward, or surrendering authority to a trustworthy friend, were all, Schelling suggested, means of policing or managing the self.
Using cigarette smoking as an example, he went on to posit that addictive behaviors demonstrated an anomaly in consumer theory in that “consumers are getting negative satisfaction out of something they spend a lot of money to consume”. In other words, despite the known detrimental social, health and financial consequences, people continue to be hooked into the behavior. The way some of them can reverse the addiction is through, amongst other tactics, paying for support of professionals, drugs or behavior-aversive aids. The suggestion is that with both “positive” behaviors (regular saving, exercising, meeting deadlines) and “negative” behaviors such as cigarette smoking, the consumer will find ways of managing the self, whether through self-reward or self-intimidation.
At the core of Egonomics is the idea that within each person exists two selves: the future self and the present (or past) self, constantly at odds, leading to a sort of cognitive dissonance between the two. Both selves exist within us and are equally valid, but aren’t always active at the same time. It’s a natural and ongoing conflict between immediate desire and long-term goals.
“Many of us have little tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we out to foreswear. Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes. We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed. People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves.” – Thomas Schelling, Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management