Weasel-Proofing and the Definition of Legitimacy

Thursday, April 4, 2013
By dreeves

no weasels

Remember our elaborate SOS clause? It describes in excruciating detail what to do if unforeseen circumstances cause you to drive off your yellow brick road. Well, we’ve since realized it suffices to just believe people. If you don’t want us to “just believe you” — it does have the danger of defeating the whole point of a commitment contract! — then we have a “weasel-proof me” check box in advanced settings.

“Here’s our rule of thumb”

But what are good criteria for deciding if a derailment is legitimate? Sometimes the circumstances that led to a derailment make it ambiguous. Here’s our rule of thumb: If you had thought to spell it out in your fine print for the commitment contract, would you have chosen to have an exemption for circumstances like these?

Ideally we want two things to be true any time someone goes off their yellow brick road and loses a pledge:

  1. It was due purely to akrasia.
  2. The motivation that Beeminder provided up until the derailment was worth more than the amount paid.

The ideal might be unreachable because we need objective criteria for when the pledge should be forfeit. (Though even that we’re not sure about — would it work to just ask you if you felt the derailment was akratic?)

As a bare minimum so far, we’ve been using this policy: Is there anything the platonic ideal of Beeminder could’ve done to prevent this derailment? Maybe better reminders, like separate SMS reminders just for emergency days?

If so (if you can tell us so with a straight face) then we don’t count it as a legit derailment. Unless of course you checked the “weasel-proof me” box.

UPDATE: The “weasel-proof me” checkbox is something you have to opt in to in advanced settings, not to be confused with the “I swear not to weasel” box that you have to check when pledging on goals. We obviously have a terminology problem! Everyone is promising not to weasel and the “weasel-proof me” checkbox is really just authorizing us to be hard-nosed in the face of ambiguously extenuating circumstances.

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  • kshuzhongxin

    In this context, I recommend the literature on completely specified contracts and optimal damages.

    “If the contract is truly completely specified [...] a high damage measure – high enough that no party would ever breach the contract – would be in the parties’ mutual interest because they would then be assured that exactly the contract they want would be obeyed.” (Shavell, “Economic Analysis of Law”, p. 305)

    On the other hand, if the contract is incompletely specified, “moderate damage measures” serve as implicit substitutes for more complete contracts”.

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Fascinating! Fun fact: One of the StickK founders (Ian Ayres) is a professor of contract law.

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