Sunday, October 31, 2010

Self Destructive?

I recently read a short story by Stephen King called "Quitters Inc."  The story starts when the main character runs into an old friend at the airport.  The friend looks younger and fitter than ever and says he's making a lot of money working for some big corporation.  He tells the main character that his life turned around when he quit smoking.  When asked how he managed to quit he hands the guy a business card for Quitters Inc. and promises him, "They'll cure you."  The main character asks about the program used at Quitters Inc. to help people quit.  His old buddy refuses to say, stating that the contract he signed with Quitters Inc. has sworn him to secrecy.  The main character persists but his buddy won't budge. 

The next day the main character stops by Quitters Inc. after work.  The staff refuse to tell him about the treatment program but inform  him that he won't be charged a penny until he's been smoke free for a year.  The guy comes back the next day to begin treatment.  He shakes hands with the doctor and follows him down the hall.  "When does the treatment start?" he asks.  He is told that it already started - the moment he shook hands with the doctor.  It is too late to change his mind now.

Finally the doctor tells him about the treatment.  Our protagonist follows the doctor to a set of green curtains, which the doctor parts to reveal a window that looks into a room with a small bunny nibbling at rabbit pellets from a dish.  The doctor presses a button and the bunny begins to hop around.  His fur is standing out in all directions.  The doctor pushes the button again.  The bunny stops hopping and runs to the corner where he cowers fretfully.  The doctor proudly explains that if the bunny is "jolted" enough times while he's eating he will eventually learn that eating = pain.  He will then stop eating and ultimately starve to death while a bowl of food sits ten feet away.  "It's called aversion training," he explains.

The protagonist quickly changes his mind about the treatment and tries to leave, but it's too late.  Treatment has already started.  He is told that representatives from Quitters Inc. will be watching him daily.  If he smokes a cigarette, his wife will be brought to the "bunny room" and given a few jolts while he watches.  If he slips up again, he'll get a "jolt" himself.  A third slip up and he and his wife will be brought to the "bunny room" together.  A fourth time and his young, mentally disabled son gets a beating.  A fifth time and it's "jolts" for him and his wife and beatings for his wife and son.  The punishments get progressively worse until the tenth slip up, at which point the treatment (and the patient) will be terminated.

The main character lives in fear for a while but manages to avoid smoking.  Soon, his life begins to improve.  He starts spending more time with his son.  He gets a promotion at work.  He starts exercising and losing weight.

One day, while angrily sitting in traffic, he gives in to temptation and takes a few puffs from a cigarette.  When he arrives home he finds that his wife is not there.  Eventually, he heads to Quitters Inc. where he is forced to watch his wife endure a few jolts in the "bunny room."  Afterward, he has to explain to his wife what is going on.  He expects her to be angry and is surprised when she tells him that she's actually happy.  She tells him that Quitters Inc. is saving his life.

Anyway, the protagonist does not relapse again and goes on to lead a happy and successful life.

This story made me think.  It dawned on me that it does often come down to forcing a person to make changes that he or she knows are good for him.  A person might halfheartedly try to quit smoking only to give up a day or two later.  A person might say, "I know I need to start exercising" but never get around to it.  Someone might recognize that she is drinking too much but tell herself that she's young and she'll slow down when she gets older.  It often takes something big - a heart attack, the death of a loved one, a DUI - to get a person to actually make the changes that need to be made.  Why is this?  Why is it that people so often seem content to continue down a path of self-destructive behavior, even when they know it is not good for them or when they can clearly see that it is having negative consequences?  In the story, the character mentions that he's tried to quit smoking many times but has never made it longer than a few days before giving up.  Yet when he is placed under duress he is able to withstand temptation and only has one brief moment of weakness.  Why don't we have the motivation to make these changes on our own, without pressure?  Why would we rather do what's bad for us than what's good for us?  These are just some questions I started pondering after reading "Quitters Inc."  I don't have the answers, but would love to hear any insight other might have.   


  1. Old habits die hard. People tend to take the path of least resistance. Good post.

  2. What's even more interesting is when people have these big consequences (death of a loved one, heart attack, etc) and still don't make changes. I think there are so many deep things influencing this...core beliefs, unknown associations from the past, fears borne of the unknown, denial...

    The one thing I noticed about the list that you provided, aside from the story, is that those are all natural consequences. I think for REAL change to happen, it has to be on the person's own timetable and stage of readiness. If you force change on someone, it just won't stick, in my experience.

  3. I remember reading Quitters, Inc. when I was in high school. It reminded me a bit of A Clockwork Orange, where the main character was rendered non-dangerous but also deprived of any choices and therefore any real morality.

    I can't speak for everyone, of course, but I've never had any luck trying to force clients to change, even when I have the power to inflict some pretty severe consequences. We can encourage change through techniques like motivational interviewing and coaching, but force? No, in my experience it just doesn't work.

    Debra Stang
    Alliant Professional Network Specialist


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