Mar 8, 2011

You v. You

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.

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Jad: Wait, you're listening--

Speaker: Okay.

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Speakers: You're listening to Radiolab from WNYC and NPR.

Jad: Okay, from the top, are you ready?

Robert: Yes.

Jad: Hello?

Zelda: Hello, hello.

Jad: How are you doing? We're going to start things off today with this lady.

Zelda: Zelda Gamson. Welcome to our little spot.

Robert: It's beautiful.

Jad: She's 80 years old and these days Zelda lives a quiet life by the sea.

Zelda: On Martha's Vineyard. Did you have some coffee?

Jad: She visits with her grandkids, does some gardening.

Zelda: We have a bird feeder and it is the bird show of the world.

Jad: [chuckles] Life for Zelda, wasn't always calm. Back in the 60s' when our story begins, she was a very different lady. She even went by a different nickname, just?

Zelda: Z. [chuckles]

[background music]

Okay. I was a smoker 30 years.

Jad: Wow.

Zelda: I started when I went to college in 1956.

Jad: At first, it was just a cigarette here or there?

Zelda: Letting the bad girl out a bit and then I got hooked really, and I couldn't stop. Went to graduate school. Smoked. Got my dissertation, smoked, got my degree, smoked.

Jad: Somewhere in the fog she meets?

Mary: Hey?

Zelda: My friend Mary.

Jad: Also, a smoker?

Mary: I love smoking, it made me feel very elegant. [laughs] We were very good friends.

Zelda: We were part in the early 60s' of the Congress on Racial Equality.

Jad: Together they'd organize protests.

Zelda: Well, we would demonstrate.

Jad: The two of them would even go under covered to fight--

Mary: Housing Discrimination.

Jad: The backdrop to all of this social change?

Zelda& Mary: Smoke.

Mary: Yes. You got it. Our houses were filled with these ash trays.

Jad: How much were you smoking at that point?

Mary: Probably smoked a pack a day.

Zelda: I was aware smoker than Mary and I was sometimes up to two packs a day.

Jad: Wow.

Zelda: I had kids, I was pregnant.

Jad: You smoked while you were pregnant?

Zelda: I did.

Jad: Wow.

Zelda: Yes. I feel so guilty about that.

Jad: At a certain point, Zelda and Mary decide, they want to stop.

Zelda & Mary: Yes.

Jad: Mary, who'd never been as badly addicted to Zelda, it wasn't an easy?

Mary: It was agonizing.

Jad: Eventually she's able to do it. Zelda?

Zelda: Nope. I thought sometimes that I could stop and so I would.

Jad: Over and over, she'd throw out her cigarettes.

Zelda: Okay. Done.

Jad: But then?

Zelda: Then I'd be around somebody with cigarettes, "Oh, F."

Jad: Any reason that you gave yourself?

Zelda: Cancer, my kids, the smell, the fact that I could die.

Jad: It always lost out to the urge.

Zelda: I'd always start smoking again.

Jad: This is how it would go, resolve, failure. Resolve, failure.

[background music]

Okay. This is not the most unusual situation in the world, but the question we want to ask right now is like, "How do you get out of this?"

Robert: You want to do something badly, but then another part of you says, "No, I don't want to do that." It's you against you, what do you do?

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab, and today?

Robert: The little deals that you make when you are stuck with yourself.

[background music]

Jad: Okay. Before talking with Zelda, it just so happened that I went with Adam Davidson.

Adam Davidson: Hi.

Jad: One of the Planet Money guys to visit, this fellow Nobel prize winning economist named Thomas Schelling, who's written a whole lot about the seemingly simple idea of--

Thomas Schelling: Commitment, arranging it so that you can't compromise. I'll give you an example.

Jad: Here's one from ancient Greece.

Thomas: Xenophon the Greek who was being pursued by a huge army of Persians, had to make a stand on a hillside and one of his generals said, "I don't think this is a good location to make our stand. There's a cliff behind us. There's no way we can retreat if we need too."

Jad: Xenophon told his general, "Exactly."

Thomas: Welcome the cliff.

Jad: In fact, he said, "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to March our armies so that their backs are directly to the cliff. That way--

Thomas: "The Persians will know that we can never retreat." "We're bound to fight to the death."

Robert: You're really binding yourself. You're not binding the other side.

Thomas: Yes. It's attempting to influence somebody else's choice by restricting your own choice.

Jad: Then we asked him what if your adversary isn't on the outside like the Persians, but rather it was you? How do you do what Xenophon did to yourself?

Thomas: Yes I began smoking when I was 17 years old. I did quit several times, but I always went back.

Robert: Ooh.

Jad: He did give us some suggestions. One, in particular, that was so awesome, to use your favorite words, so diabolical that we just didn't think anyone would ever do it. That is until we met Zelda.

Zelda: Yes.

Jad: Fast forward a few decades.

Zelda: 1984.

Jad: Mary and Zelda now live in different parts of the country.

Zelda: I happened to be going to a conference in Vermont. Mary picked me up at the airport, and I was smoking when she picked me up.

Mary: Which was curious because nobody smokes anymore.

Zelda: She said, "Why, Zelda, are you still smoking?"

Mary: Zelda said--

Zelda: "Yes, and don't tell me to stop."

Jad: [laughs]

Zelda: I was very belligerent.

Mary: Yes.

Zelda: I went to the conference and smoked.

Jad: Were they guilty cigarettes?

Zelda: No, they were delicious.

Jad: [laughs] What Mary said was starting to worm its way into her brain.

Zelda: Are you still smoking, still smoking, still smoking, still smoking? When she dropped me off at the airport, I said, "Okay, Mary," as if she had been putting pressure on me, which she wasn't at all, "if I ever smoke again, I'm going to give $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan.

Jad: What?

Mary: Did she say $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan?

Zelda: Correct.

Jad: This was Schelling's suggestion.

Thomas: It couldn't work.

Jad: He didn't think anyone would ever do it.

Zelda: $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan. It just came out of my mouth. You know how horrible they are. Right?

Jad: Sure.

Zelda: So heinous.

Jad: Her and Mary made a deal.

Mary: A pact.

Jad: If Zelda smoked, she'd have to tell Mary to send the KKK her money.

Zelda: Take it out of my savings or something.

Jad: You were really serious you were going to do this?

Zelda: Yes. I have to say after I made this pledge to Mary under my breath, I said, "I can't be responsible if she smokes again."

Jad: What? "If she smokes again"?

Zelda: If she smokes again.

Jad: Who's the she in that sentence?

Zelda: Me.

Jad: You. What does that mean?

Zelda: That means that the part of me that was smoking and that might pick up smoking again, was an alien part.

Jad: You're saying you were two people at that moment?

Zelda: Yes.

Jad: She-

Zelda: Z didn't really want to stop smoking.

Jad: She?

Zelda: She, yes

Jad: After the pact, Zelda says that often when she would fall asleep.

Zelda: I would dream of myself smoking.

Jad: She'd wake up.

Zelda: In a terrible sweat.

Jad: Reach for her cigarettes. Every time she says this other thought would just rush into her mind.

Zelda: The KKK.

Jad: Robes, burning crosses, lynchings.

Zelda: Oh, God.

Jad: She'd throw the cigarettes down.

Zelda: I couldn't.

Jad: The idea of them having her money.

Zelda: I can't even imagine it.


Jad: Sounds like you really backed yourself up against the cliff.

Zelda: I did. [laughs]

Jad: Zelda had found a thought that was hotter than the urge.

Zelda: She didn't smoke again.

Jad: Never again?

Zelda: No, that was it. Cold Turkey.

Jad: Wow.

Zelda: Look at this. There's a picture of me on a cruise that Bill and I took.

Mary: Here she is.

Zelda: It's a profile picture of me.

Mary: Just look at the cigarette.

Zelda: I look gorgeous there. That's the best picture ever taken of me.

Jad: Now, if we are many people on the inside, and we've talked about this on the show before how our brain is literally divided into these camps that sometimes wrestle and fight, the problem, according to Thomas Schelling is that these selves--

Thomas: Never exist simultaneously. We're never at the table together. The one who's in charge never confronts the other. I guess that makes it hard to compromise.

Robert: Although, there is another way to think about the problem.

David: Things that are offered right now have so much more power than things that are offered in the future.

Robert: Oh, this is David Eagleman, he's a neuroscientist. He says, really, you could think about this whole thing as a battle about time.

David: We'll make all sorts of very poor economic decisions.

Robert: Now versus later, really.

David: If something is offered right now versus later, when you look at the neuroimaging, it becomes clear that there are different parts of the brain that are battling this out.

Jad: The now parts are way stronger?

David: Yes. Here's the key. What she's doing in the case of the cigarettes is she's saying I know that I want to win this long-term battle, but I'm having a heck of a time doing it but if I can make the long-term plan tied into a different immediate feeling of disgust, then all I have to do is have the disgust battle the desire.

Robert: I see. What she's done is she's turned this battle into a present tense battle on both sides. I want a cigarette now.

Jad: Versus I hate the KKK now.

Robert: Now.

David: Precisely.

Robert: It's a now versus now thing.

David: I think that's the only way we ever win these long term battles is to give them some emotional salience. Some reason why they matter to us right now, otherwise, it'll never work.

Jad: There are any number of ways of doing this. Here is how Thomas Schelling did it.

Thomas: 1980, gather my children together and I said, I quit and that they should never have respect for their father again if I returned to smoking.

Robert: He never again?

Jad: That was it for him. The thing I like about those two stories is that there's a case where, like, okay, say you've got these cells battling in your head. You've got the now part, the later part, and the later part is weak. In this case, the later part found a way to trick the now parts. This has a name, this kind of approach. It's called the Ulysses contract. In the Elliot, there's a moment where Ulysses and his men have to sail past the island of the Sirens. Ulysses knows if they hear the siren song, they're dead.

Robert: The sailors were so attracted to these melodies, that they would steer towards them and crash their ships into the rocks and die. On his way there before the music started, he came up with a plan. He had his men lash him to the mast with ropes so that he couldn't move. He had them fill their own ears with beeswax, and he said, "No matter what I do, no matter how I'm gesticulating or shouting or acting like a crazy man, just keep rowing. Just keep going."

Jad: When they got to the sirens.



Robert: He goes nuts. He's screaming and yelling and telling the men, "Go towards the women. We don't want to pass this up." Of course, the men have these wax in their ears. They're not swayed by the Siren song.

Jad: Because he had planned for this.

Robert: The present tense Ulysses--

Jad: Bu using his men and the rope had literally bound--

Robert: The future Ulysses--

Jad: To the mast because he knew that guy would be weak.


Robert: If we can just move off the ocean for just a moment.

Jad: Gone. Get out of your ocean.

Robert: [laughs] Radio, what a weird medium. Anyway, what is the bargain that you strike isn't just about something very, very small and now. Like this puff of smoke, what if it's a deal that you have to do that will decide what you're going to do for every day of the next 40 years, what then?

Jad: Well, this brings us to a story from our producer Pat Walters. Ready? Okay, set it up.

Pat Walters: I'm in Chinatown. About a year ago. At the corner of Pell and Mark. My friend Jenny posted something on Twitter. It said, overheard, I flipped the coin and I lost my life.

Jad: I flipped a coin and lost my life?

Pat: Yes.

Jad: What's Twitter? She actually heard someone say this?

Pat: Yes. She's a reporter. She was just chatting with the guy and he said that to her. I flipped a coin and I lost my life.

Jad: What was the context?

Pat: She was getting a massage in Chinatown.

Jad: How would that phrase come up in the middle of a massage?

Pat: I honestly don't know.

Jad: She's a reporter. Did she ask? She didn't say, "Get your hands off me, man, and tell me the story."

Pat: I don't know exactly what went down but I asked her what the situation was. She said that she basically didn't know anything.

Jad: But she just heard that.

Pat: She heard it and she told me that it was at this place that was either at one of seven different addresses that she gave me. I just wandered around. Do you know someplace around here called Health Trail, a massage place?

Speaker 6: I have no idea.

Pat: No? Wandered around to several different addresses. Damn. Eventually, I found this tiny little storefront. It was a little side with some feet. Hello. Kind of hidden.

Speaker 7: Oh. You want to see my son?

Pat: Met a family guy who said the thing. Hi.

Dennis: Hi.

Pat: How are you?

Dennis: I'm okay.

Pat: His name is Dennis.

Dennis: Dennis.

Pat: I just asked him. Tell me about this coin flip. Can you tell me so when did this happen?

Dennis: It happened about four years ago. I was 26 and my brother was 21.

Pat: Both of them had gone to college. Dennis for photography. His brother for art. They come out of school with these big dreams.

Dennis: [crosstalk] new places, meeting new people making a life and making money.

Pat: That hadn't really worked out.

Dennis: No job for me.

Robert: They're having a hard time finding jobs and they ended up living at home with their dad.

Dennis: Yes, with my dad. Basically, I was just staying home [unintelligible 00:15:06] and my brother-

Robert: He's just working in a restaurant.

Dennis: No life either.

Jad: This is basically post-college flail. They're stuck.

Dennis: Stuck in the middle of the road. That's what happened to us.

Jad: One day their dad comes up to them and says, "Look, guys--

Dennis: One of you guys has got to follow me.

[background music]

Jad: I need one of you. I don't care which one of you but I need one of you to take over the family business.

Dennis: My father's getting old. Just decided either both of you come out or one of you come out.

Jad: One of them now has to carry on his thing. What does the dad do?

Robert: He went to this massage parlor. The sons we're not interested.

Kai Woo: Neither was really want to do it.

Robert: That's Kai.

Kai: Kai Woo.

Robert: Dennis's little brother.

Dennis: Because touching people foot, is something disgusting.

Kai: There's always a hairy guy or some girls with busted toes.

Dennis: Disgusting and annoying facing it further for 24 hours seven days a week.

Kai: A little more than I can take. I love my dad.

Dennis: You just don't want to follow your dad's footstep.

Jad: The dad says, "Get over it. It's about family."

Dennis: Keeping the business alive, keeping the technique he has alive in the whole Chinatown. I don't think any massage place or any therapy place will have my father technique.

Robert: It's a special thing?

Jad: Yes. It's this deep tissue acupressure.

Dennis: It's painful.

Jad: Type of massage.

Dennis: I don't know, has Jenny told you that?

Jad: No.

Dennis: It's really really painful.

Jad: Anyhow, they're sitting at home and this question is silently hanging over them for days and weeks, till one day, they're at a friend's place having some tea talking about their dad and Dennis looks up at his brother and says--

Dennis Let's make it better.

Kai: Let's see what [unintelligible 00:16:38] thing.

Jad: The what?

Kai: Let's see what the [unintelligible 00:16:43] say.

Jad: Well Dennis says when you're drinking loose tea the Chinese right you put the leaves right in the bottom of your cup and you pour the water over them. Usually, the leaves float up to the top flat on the surface of the tea but every now and then-

Dennis: Every 10 Cup you might see the tips is floating and the rest of the body is inside the water.

Jad: Like the stem sort of?

Dennis: Yes.

Jad: Then the leaf is hanging down.

Dennis: Yes.

Jad: Do you mean like every so often so the whole leaf being on the top of the water the leafy part just falls to the bottom?

Speaker 6: Yes.

Jad: And just the tip of the stem is touching the surface of the water almost like it's hanging down from the surface of the water.

Jad: This is rare?

Dennis: Yes. When you get that, that means good luck.

Jad: It is that like a traditional-

Dennis: This is for the old people that was doing it. That's how we understand that was kid. We just decided, "Okay. Whoever get that--

Jad: Whoever gets the most lucky tea leaves--

Dennis: Win. Well, whoever win, you're out. You don't need to work for my dad. Whoever lost follow my father footstep.

Jad: They trust their whole future to this?

Pat: Yes.

Kat: It was like a spur of the moment thing.

Dennis: It was.

Kai: We didn't really plan anything.

Dennis: It's like sometimes people just flip a coin. They can't figure out which way should they go, so this is flip a coin. When you pull the hot water in, they will be rolling around, like a small tornado inside. They were spinning.

Jad: Then-

Dennis: Once it's done.

Pat: -each cup has a layer of tea leaves on the surface and Dennis notices-

Dennis: Oh, look at it.

Pat: -that he'd gotten one.

Dennis: One piece. I was like, "Wow, that's incredible?"

Jad: Then he looked over to his brother's cup.

Dennis: Oh my God.

Jad: Way more of these lucky leaves.

Kai: It was pretty obvious that he lost.

Pat: He wasn't even close.

Kai: No.

Pat: Do you remember if he was angry?

Kai: He looks like he was deep in thought. Something like damn.

Dennis: I was like, "This is the worst thing in my life.

Jad: It basically was because now he was bound by these tea leaves to go and work for his dad. What happened to you?

Dennis: The first day I come here to work, I don't feel like touching anybody foot. He forced me to touch his foot.

Jad: Did he have to grab your hands.

Dennis: He would just sit down, take off his shoes without washing his feet. That's disgusting. He just tell me to try to work on it.

Jad: His dad eventually said, "Practice on your friends."

Dennis: I was like, "Oh God. No." They still hate me right now for giving them all the pain.

Jad: When that was gone do you remember what was going through your head? We're you like, "What am I doing?" Did you feel like you're on the wrong track?

Dennis: Well, I don't know how to explain.

Jad: Here's the funny thing. Dennis says that there came a point.

Dennis: After a month working on my father feet I don't feel disgusting anymore. I feel kind of like it.

Jad: He liked it?

Pat: Yes.

Dennis: I don't know why. It's just like, making me, "Ah." It seem nice to work on people. I don't know how to explain. I just started falling in love with this job. I don't know that happened? I just started working here seven days of the week. It become part of my life. Wake up in the morning, come in here, work, go home, sleep, come here, and work. It just become part of my life. When I got a day off, I don't know where to go. I'm just staying home. Let me come back out here and work.

Jad: Really?

Dennis: That's what happened. It's just like-- I think that's how falling in love in this. You don't know how it happens when it's happened. It just happened. It was a good loss, I was thinking. I love this job.

Jad: It sounds like he made his deal with fate and he just got lucky.

Pat: No.

Jad: No?

Speaker: Kai has a slightly different read on the whole thing. Well, so if he had one, would you have had to do it?

Kai: No.

Pat: No?

Kai: No.

Jad: No?

Kai: No.

Jad: Kai says the whole teenage deal was really just about Dennis.

Kai: I think at that point in the back of his head, he wanted to do it-

Jad: just an excuse.

Kai: I think he was just looking for a sign.

Pat: I'll have to ask him, I guess. When we did ask Dennis, he didn't really agree with his brother.

Dennis: Well, it's just how do you say--

Pat: He didn't entirely disagree either.

Dennis: Not that because I wanted to do it. It's just like, it's kind of, I'm just in my brother to push me to work for my dad.

Pat: What do you mean by that?

Kai: I don't think he wanted to make his own decision.

Dennis: It might be better I just wait for my dad. I don't want him to face him. If my brother just pushed me, okay, I'll be facing him. That could be what happened.

Jad: He just needed a push? All right.

Robert: What a wimpy thing to do though, when you think about it?

Jad: Why is that wimpy?

Robert: Well, he wanted to be a masseuse.

Jad: He didn't know what he wanted.

Robert: He knew when he set up his brother to make him do it.

Jad: No, no. If you call it wimpy--

Robert: I call it wimpy.

Jad: I call it powerfully wimpy, muscularly wimpy.

Robert: Meaning what? What does that mean?

Jad: I got one for you. I'm going to lay this. Are you ready for this? Maybe the new strength is understanding your own wimpiness. What do you think about that? I just tied you into a philosophical knot right there, buddy. You're going to be thinking about that one for years.

Robert: I'm thinking about it. I'm over thinking about it now.

Jad: Just take it in the complexity.

Robert: Can I speak now?

Jad: No, David is going to say something.

David: This is who we are. That's the reality on the ground. We're just weak. We need help. I actually think this gives us a new way to think about and understand virtue. I think it gives us a much richer view of human nature.

Jad: Thanks to Pat Walters, our Chinatown correspondent, and to Thomas Schelling who's written many, many books, including The Strategy of Conflict and to Adam Davidson from the amazing Planet Money Team and to David Eagleman, whose latest book is Incognito. We'll be right back.

Annie: Hi, my name is Annie McEwen. I'm a producer at Radiolab and I wanted to talk about this thing we do at Radiolab because I like it. We have this thing. It's a newsletter, big surprise. Every show has a newsletter, but ours I think is pretty fun.

Matt: It's so fun.

Annie: Matt Kielty--

Matt: Hello.

Annie: Fellow producer at Radiolab. What is your favorite part of the newsletter?

Matt: My favorite part of the newsletter, first, it's getting it and seeing it in my inbox. Then, second, is opening it. Third, is just hitting page down on my keyboard until I get to the very bottom of the email.

Annie: That's good.

Matt: You know what's at the bottom of the email?

Annie: What?

Matt: You know.

Annie: Staff picks.

Matt: Staff picks is at the bottom of the email. Which is like, "How great is that?"

Annie: It's great.

Matt: Just like stuff that we like. Stuff we're into.

Annie: What are your favorites?

Matt: Some of these staff picks- there was the one video where it was like 17 babies on a hamster wheel.

Annie: Really?

Matt: The article about the guy who had 17 burritos?

Annie: Matt, you're not saying real ones. Okay.

Matt: What's your favorite staff pick?

Annie: My favorite one ever? Well, it's hard to say. One of my favorite ones ever was Robert talking in delightful detail about the great sausage duel of 1865.

Matt: Classic pick.

Annie: Classic. Molly's bedbug pajamas.

Matt: Oh, yes. That was a scary time.

Annie: Tracy's pasta recipe. Which I did not make because I don't really cook. I'm just proud of her.

Matt: Actually, it's really simple.

Tracy: It was just online. It''s a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, five tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, and onion. You cook it in a pan for 45 minutes. All right.


Matt: Thank you, Tracy. I'm telling you everybody's loving this pasta diss.

Woman: I do definitely.

Matt: That woman, this guy.

Speaker 8: Sure.

Speaker 9: Oh, I think it's wonderful.

Jad0: Very tasty.

Jad1: Pasta every day.

Annie: Matt. [laughs] You're not helping. Anyway, our newsletter has cool stuff in it like staff picks. It also tells you when an episode is dropping.

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