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Sitting with hands together Sitting with hands together (an untrained eye/flickr)

Zelda Gamson tried for decades to stop smoking. But while one part of her wanted to quit, another part just didn't want to let go. So, how do you win a tug-of-war with yourself? We decided to ask one of the greatest negotiators of our time for some advice. Adam Davidson from Planet Money introduces us to Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, whose tactical skills saw him through high-stakes conflicts during the Cold War. But while his strategies worked wonders during nuclear stand-offs, it turns out they fell apart when he tried them on his own battle to quit smoking. Then one day, he had an idea so diabolical we thought no one would try it. Until we met Zelda, and her friend Mary Belenky, who came up with a contract powerful enough to give Zelda a fighting chance. Neuroscientist David Eagleman helps us untangle the tricky business of cutting deals with oursleves. And producer Pat Walters complicates things--in a good way--with the story of two brothers, Dennis and Kai Woo, who forged a deal with each other that wound up determining both of their futures.


David Eagleman and Thomas C. Schelling


Pat Walters

Comments [22]

Michael Finnigan from DeKalb, IL

Hey Radiolab! I'm a long time listener and HUGE fan of the show and just recently heard this episode for the first time and have to thank you for that piece about Zelda. Me and my Fiance have been trying to quit smoking after 7 years and we decided to take her approach. While our stakes weren't as high, we both made a pact that the first person to smoke a cigarette would have to donate $100 to Ted Cruz's Presidential Campaign(sorry, it's nothing personal, we just don't like the guy...) We're both smoke free for two weeks now and the very thought of donating to his campaign has helped fight off the cravings since. Thanks Radiolab, Zelda, and maybe Ted Cruz?

Oct. 09 2015 04:42 PM

I don't smoke but I want to start exercising. I'm using the following thanks to this story - for the next six weeks I have to exercise three times a week or else I have to publicly (on Facebook and Twitter) tell everyone that I am in support of an organization I despise. The very idea of it makes my skin crawl! After that - another six weeks. (I chose six weeks because that is habit forming time maybe after that four times a week for six weeks. etc)

Jan. 25 2014 06:20 PM
Michael from Pittsburgh

Pack-and-a-half-a-day...Looking all over the house for half-smoked butts...Walking across town at 2am to a cigarette machine (It was early 1970s). Here is how I quit - COLD TURKEY. 1. Do something else. 2. Remember your stop day and count the days. 3. Be able, at any time, to tell a friend exactly how many days it has been since you had a cigarette. 4. Stop counting when you reach 1000 days.

I stopped smoking and started running. I ran one block and coughed my guts into the gutter the first few days. I ran a mile at the end of two weeks. I ran 3 miles by the end of the month. I was running 5 miles a day at the end of 3 months. I had lost 35lb. My stop day - June 2, 1972. I am still running - 5 miles - not a mile further, most days, and when I don't run, I bike.

The secret is understanding that we are creatures of habit. We cannot change that reality. What we can change are the habits.

Jan. 25 2014 01:18 PM

Hey, just listened to this podcast and the massage parlor brothers' story reminded me of a TED talk that I heard about synthetic happiness. The brother said that he woke up one day and loved his job, and he has no idea how this happened. According to this study, on from a lecturer, Dan Gilbert, on TED, it's our brains dealing with and coming to terms with our second choices. Look it up, synthetic happiness.

Oct. 04 2011 12:31 AM
M. P. Smith

While we are giving credit to the Greeks, the problem of knowing the best thing to do but not doing it, called akrasia in Greek, was a staple of ancient philosophy. In the Protagoras, (355a ff.), Plato came up with the explanation of the hegemony of the here and now offered by your neuroscientist.

Jun. 19 2011 06:34 PM
Carl Jonard

The guitar track around 22 minutes is "Kita Kita" by Gaspar Lawal.

Apr. 19 2011 01:05 PM
Meagan Reeves from Washington, MO

This piece is AMAZING!!! I have long tried to explain the "battle in my head" about quitting smoking and drinking and this describes it PERFECTLY. I am finishing my MAC and this just blows my mind....way to go guys!!

Apr. 18 2011 07:50 PM
mjg from pdx

an epic mistake of small proportion
--as noted above good ol' ulysses/odysseus has himself roped to the mast in the odyssey not the illiad-although if anyone could head home before leaving for home it just might be the master of wiles himself

Apr. 16 2011 07:52 PM

"Her and Mary made a deal?"
What? Public Radio? Let's demand more.

Apr. 16 2011 04:15 PM

To all of you looking for the Woo family massage joint: It's called Health Trail, and it's located at 23 Pell Street. Or wait, was it 32 Mott. Or ... just kidding! Thanks for listening, everybody!

Mar. 30 2011 10:33 AM
Chris from UK

Chad, I'm afraid Ulysses didn't sail past the Sirens in the Iliad as this took place after the events at Troy, on his journey back to Ithaca.
If you would like a Homeric reference maybe Odysseus in the Odyssey (or Ulysses in the Odyssey but I never liked mixing the Latin and Greek)?

Mar. 29 2011 07:15 AM
W Richard Stark from Tampa

"Her and Mary made a deal" ?
You said it in this program.

Mar. 28 2011 03:31 PM
Dan O from Atlanta, GA

Do you guys post the names of your musical bumps anywhere? What's the guitar song at 22:17?


Mar. 28 2011 03:21 PM
julia from washington, dc

what is the name and where is the foot massage business? you should post it!!!!

Mar. 27 2011 03:23 PM
Marea from Brooklyn, NY

Where is the Woo family foot massage practice located?

Mar. 25 2011 04:16 PM
Jim from Minneapolis

What's the lovely piano & violin music at 20:00-21:00? Anybody know?

Mar. 18 2011 01:43 AM
Michele from New York City

I thought this was such a cool concept for breaking a habit of any kind. It does seem like you would have to be READY if you were setting an ultimatum like Zelda did, but maybe you just have to do it and then you'll be ready? She is awesome.

Mar. 16 2011 10:01 AM

In mentioning the "Ulysses Contract," you mistake the "Iliad" for the "Odyssey." Odysseus lashes himself to his mast, etc... during the "Odyssey." (The 11:43 mark of the show- Book 12 of the "Odyssey.")

Mar. 13 2011 10:34 AM
Hans Kuder

An alternative to Stickk is - similar concept, but a much simpler way to set up give yourself a financial incentive to complete a goal.

Mar. 12 2011 04:46 PM

After 25 years of smoking, I quit on September 13th, 2003 at 10AM. When Zelda mentioned dreaming that she was smoking, I had to smile. They're not as often now, but I still have what I call "the smoking dream", where I'm dreaming that I'm smoking, knowing that I shouldn't be, and relieved when I wake up and realize it was just a dream and I wasn't really smoking.

Mar. 12 2011 10:16 AM
JT from Austin, TX

Ugh! You were so close but danced right around it! You have got to check out - a commitment website (maybe you cannot feature them for some reason?)

I am currently in a commitment to lose 20 pounds in 20 weeks. Any week that I do not keep up the 1 lb/week average, I lose $15. So, for the entire commitment, I have $300 at stake.

Not much... especially when you consider the creator of the site, Ian Ayres. He went on a 52-week, $500 per week diet. Near the bottom of the free online excerpt of his book, you can see how he did:$500Diet_Kindle.htm

I am a HUGE fan of the show! I just finished re-listening to every show and podcast. Thank you for the amazing show!

Mar. 10 2011 05:32 PM

whats the song at the 40min mark, anyone know?

Mar. 09 2011 09:52 PM

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