Buffett and his attempts at self-control

March 23, 2009 BY danariely

I am teaching today in class about self control problems, and approaches to regain self control.  Here is a story of Buffett and his attempts at self-control:

Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities. We find a great example in Alice Schroeder’s “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.”

Warren Buffett is a numbers-driven investor whose life choices and business decisions would make the vulcan Mr. Spock seem over-emotional. A teenage horse handicapper who grew up into a deep reader of Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s reports, Buffett is the archetypal quant: a data-processing, information-consuming, hard-thinking, analytical machine. His ability to outperform the market by basing his decisions on hard data and on an uncanny understanding of business fundamentals earned him the moniker “Oracle of Omaha.”

Buffett’s success as an investor required not only deep analysis of financial documents but also a large measure of self-control to avoid getting caught in market bubbles and panics. Buffett’s rule “buy when everyone else is selling, sell when everyone else is buying” requires enormous self-assurance to execute.

And yet, even the Oracle of Omaha is not immune to the allure of irrational behavior. He is what Behavioral Economists call a sophisticate: someone who understands his irrationality and builds systems to cope with it. (The other types of people are the “rational,” who never deviates from optimal behavior, and the “naif,” who is unaware of his irrationality and therefore doesn’t do anything to address it.)

Uncommon a person as he was, Buffett had a very common concern: he feared gaining too much weight. Rational agents don’t gain weight because they always consider all the possible consequences of all actions. Naifs plan to start their diet tomorrow.

But Buffett — who breakfasted on spoonfuls of Ovaltine — understood his predictable irrationality: people eat without consideration for the long-term effects; that’s why they gain unwanted weight. Being a pragmatic person, he decided to curtail overeating with a commitment device.

He gave unsigned checks for $10,000 to his children, promising to sign them if he was over target weight by a certain date. Many people use commitment devices to try to keep their weight down, but Buffett’s idea had a big flaw: his children, spotting a rare opportunity to get money from the notoriously frugal billionaire, resorted to sabotage. Doughnuts, pizza, and fried food mysteriously appeared whenever Buffett was home.

In the end the incentives worked: even with his children’s sabotage, the Oracle kept his weight down, and his checks went unsigned. But had he been purely rational, no commitment device would have been needed.