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The letter B in the style of the superman logo

People often ask, sometimes incredulously, what kind of person uses Beeminder. We’ve found that the following personality traits are required:

  1. Akratic (obviously (see sidebar for definition))
  2. Ambitious/motivated (ironically)
  3. Self-aware (knowing the limits of one’s motivation)
  4. High-integrity (to not spoil the whole point by cheating/weaseling)
  5. And probably lifehacking data nerdery

What fraction of the population does that leave? Most people are akratic about at least some things. It’s practically part of the human condition. I don’t know where the ambitiousness threshold is but it’s a sizable minority if not a majority. There’s some empirical evidence [1] to suggest 1/3 is the fraction of people with enough self-awareness to appreciate the value of a commitment device. Integrity is another one I don’t know how to estimate, but hopefully it’s at least 50%. And we’re gradually lowering the bar on lifehacking data nerdery (and the more competitors we have the more receptive the general population is to this kind of craziness!) but we’re still clearly targeting the nerd elite.

Multiplying the (mostly made-up) numbers out:
95% × 50% × 33% × 50% × 10% = nearly 1% of the population.

We are the 1%!

Embarrassed To Be Minded?

“I needed something like Beeminder so badly that I went and built it”

Despite my claim that we are the elite 1% with enough Integrity and Ambition (and pretty enough faces) to use Beeminder, I was surprised to discover, in the early days of Beeminder, that not everyone felt the same. We were getting feedback about our privacy features and one user revealed that they viewed needing commitment devices as a bad signal. [4] I’m obviously not used to thinking that way since my whole identity is wrapped up in the fact that I needed something like Beeminder so badly that I went and built it. (In fact Bethany did and does more of the actual building than me but my point stands!)

And perhaps the entire point of this post is to disagree with that person. If anything, and the above list makes this clear, I think it is a positive signal. Akrasia is an extremely common problem and the ones who introspect well enough to recognize it and correct for it (and who have the kind of self-integrity to not just find a way to weasel out of every possible attempt to employ commitment devices) are, in my experience, super impressive people.

It’s true there are the arguably even more impressive people who simply don’t suffer from akrasia in the first place. So if you can get away with passing yourself off as one of those people — keeping your beeminding secret — I’m not sure I have a good argument to dissuade you!

One possible counterargument is to look at all the very clearly awesome people who proudly use Beeminder. We’ve got open source superstars like Yehuda Katz, Paul Fenwick, and Steve Klabnik, authors like Nick Winter and Conrad Barski, and startup founders and professors who are so famous they have Wikipedia pages. We’ve even got the international director of the EFF and coiner of the term “lifehacking”, Danny O’Brien. (The list actually goes on and on — see also our press roundups.)

Personally, I view akrasia like literal myopia. [5] It would be nice to have perfect vision, but it’s not embarrassing to need glasses. What would be embarrassing is stumbling around bumping into things for lack of wearing them.



[1] I know of one study [2] involving a datacenter in India where people had the choice to set up commitment contracts to voluntarily incur real losses as a way to force themselves to maintain higher output (and thus get paid more, if the commitment device worked). Something like a third of participants chose to do it. And, bizarrely, Ainslie saw a similar result with pigeons [3], 95% of whom are apparently akratic with 30% using a commitment device when available.

[2] Kaur, Supreet, Michael Kremer, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2010. “Self-Control and the Development of Work Arrangements.” American Economic Review, 100(2): 624-628.

[3] Ainslie, George W. 1974. “Impulse Control in Pigeons.” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 21(3): 485-489.

[4] I haven’t heard that complaint since then, which I take to be a sign that this concept is (very gradually) becoming mainstream.

[5] “Psychic myopia” is a great definition of akrasia. In other words, hyperbolic discounting. See also the sidebar of this blog.

Image credit: Ohmarion