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How One Smoker Quit

A few weeks ago, we posted an item about an ad executive in Australia named James Hurman who auctioned off his smoking habit, agreeing to pay a steep fine (about $800) for every cigarette he smoked after the auction closed. He wound up selling the contract, he writes, “for NZ $300 [about US $240] to somebody at the agency where I work — someone close enough to know if I owe them!”

Hurman had tried to quit smoking many times but was particularly keen in this case because he and his wife were expecting their first child.

Here’s a follow up note from Hurman about some interesting behavior modification that took hold once the auction was over. While Hurman represents a sample set of just 1, his story may well be instructive for the billions of us who routinely struggle to change our own behaviors.

Hi Stephen,

I wanted to write you and let you know how my campaign went … I think perhaps you’ll be interested in what’s happened since.

Obviously the idea was to give myself such a great disincentive that I’d be able to overcome the cravings and choose not to smoke cigarettes.

I’ve quit many times in the past and found it difficult, exhibiting each time the usual symptoms of annoyingly persistent cravings and irritability, my resolve breaking pretty easily around alcohol and late nights.

This time, however, the symptoms didn’t arrive.

The first week, when I would usually be highly irritable, I was completely unperturbed. The cravings, albeit there, were minor. The first month went by unusually smoothly.

Then on the 2nd of May I had a night out that I’d been worried about — I work in advertising and we had our industry awards night which is a huge blind-drunk-and-out-til-six-in-the-morning style affair. In terms of risk, this was high. I was kind of sure I’d either falter or have a massive internal struggle keeping my drunk self in check.

When I came to the next day I realized I hadn’t been even slightly tempted. I was out all night with smokers and as inebriated as I’ve ever been, but I hadn’t had to talk myself out of having a cigarette once. The cravings simply weren’t there — which breaks with my past experiences of quitting.

Subsequently, the past two weeks I’ve had two similar nights out (I’ve a baby on the way and I’m getting it out of my system!) and the same thing’s happened — been absolutely tanked and hanging around smokers but haven’t been the slightest bit tempted.

Same goes for during the day when I’m sober.

Thinking about it I wonder whether the scale of the disincentive has had a deeper psychological effect than simply giving me a reason to resist the cravings — it’s actually removed the cravings themselves.

Which, as I understand it, is possible given that the actual physical dependency only lasts a few days, and then the cravings are purely an act of the mind.

Could it be that the cravings only manifest in a context in which the mind considers it not-immediately-detrimental to smoke?

Could it be that when you introduce immediate danger, the mind, instead of bothering to consciously rationalize its way around the craving, just extinguishes the craving?

The other answer would be that I’m so desperate for my idea to work that I’m talking myself into it!