About 50 years ago, a young psychology professor by the name of Walter Mischel was walking around Stanford Medical School, when suddenly he had the smoker scared out of him.
"I was about 32 years old at the time, and this poor man on a gurney had his arm stretched out at his side, his chest was bare, his head was empty," Mischel recalls. "He looked terrible, and he had little green Xs all over him."
With a throat full of terror, Mischel asked the nurse what was going on.
The man has metastasized lung cancer, she replied, and the little green X marks directed where the radiation treatment was to be targeted.
At the time, Mischel was still a self-described "tobacco addict." He thought that someday he might get into trouble for his stress-relieving habit, but who knows?
Seeing the dying man in the gurney, he realized that smoking wasn't helping him out.
"Even though it feels great at the time, it has delayed consequences that would probably not have me alive at this time if I continue," says Mischel, now 84 years old, a professor at Columbia University, and author of "The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control."
But Mischel — whose "marshmallow experiment" linking delayed gratification and success became a touchstone of psychological science — understood that he couldn't just rely on his willpower to stop smoking.
Instead, he realized that he would need to make a distant consequence (dying of lung cancer) feel immediate in his life.
He would have to keep the result of his smoking "very hot" in his mind, otherwise he'd just continue smoking.
To do that, he'd have to take the temptation and subvert it.
And that's where things get psychological.
First, he imagined himself in the same position as the unfortunate soul he came across in Stanford Med School — stretched out limply on a gurney, hair all gone, green x's painted on his body to guide the radiation treatment.
Then he gave himself for a very smelly intervention.
"I had a can of tobacco debris — old cigarette butts and old pipe debris — which an enormous nicotine aroma, and stuck my head into the can whenever I was tempted to smoke," he said.
Every time he did that he'd get nauseated. And what was once a wonderful temptation — that delicious cigarette — suddenly became repulsive.
"What's happening here [is] you're changing the mental representation of the temptation," he says.
The trick, Mischel says, is to think about the delayed consequences in a way that's vivid and immediate — or "hot," as he likes to say — and think about the immediate temptation more thoughtfully, with greater consideration.
In this way, the future self on the gurney becomes more vivid, and the present temptation to smoke suddenly gets a lot less attractive.
"Descartes said 'I think therefore I am,'" Mischel says. "What the modern research shows if I can think differently, therefore I can change what I am."
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