Category Archives: Thomas Schelling

Thomas Schelling

There was a time, shortly after the first atomic bomb was exploded, when there was some journalistic speculation about whether the earth’s atmosphere had a limited tolerance to nuclear fission; the idea was bruited about that a mighty chain reaction might destroy the earth’s atmosphere when some critical number of bombs had already been exploded. Someone proposed that, if this were true and if we could calculate with accuracy that critical level of tolerance, we might neutralize atomic weapons for all time by a deliberate program of openly and dramatically exploding n – 1 bombs.

Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960, p. 138

Thomas Schelling

The book has had a good reception, and many have cheered me by telling me they liked it or learned from it. But the response that warms me most after twenty years is the late John Strachey’s. John Strachey, whose books I had read in college, had been an outstanding Marxist economist in the 1930s. After the war he had been defense minister in Britain’s Labor Government. Some of us at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs invited him to visit because he was writing a book on disarmament and arms control. When he called on me he exclaimed how much this book had done for his thinking, and as he talked with enthusiasm I tried to guess which of my sophisticated ideas in which chapters had made so much difference to him. It turned out it wasn’t any particular idea in any particular chapter. Until he read this book, he had simply not comprehended that an inherently non-zero-sum conflict could exist. He had known that conflict could coexist with common interest but had thought, or taken for granted, that they were essentially separable, not aspects of an integral structure. A scholar concerned with monopoly capitalism and class struggle, nuclear strategy and alliance politics, working late in his career on arms control and peacemaking, had tumbled, in reading my book, to an idea so rudimentary that I hadn’t even known it wasn’t obvious.

Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960, pp. vi-vii [‘Preface to the 1980 edition’]

Thomas Schelling

Schizophrenia, hypnosis, amnesia, narcosis, and anesthesia suggest that anything as complicated as the human brain, especially if designed with redundancy for good measure and most assuredly if not designed at all but arising out of a continuous process that began before we were reptiles, should be capable of representing more than one “person.” In fact, it must occasionally wire in a bit of memory that doesn’t belong or signal for a change in the body’s hormonal chemistry that makes us, at least momentarily, “somebody else.” I am reminded of the tantalizing distinction that someone made when my wife had our first child after two hours on sodium pentathol: It doesn’t make it hurt less, it just keeps you from remembering afterward. Strange that the prospect of pain can’t scare me once I’ve seen that, when I become conscious, I won’t remember!

Thomas Schelling, ‘The Intimate Contest for Self-command’, The Public Interest, vol. 60 (Summer, 1980), pp. 97-98

Thomas Schelling

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Thomas Schelling, ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’, in Samuel Chase (ed.), Problems in public Expenditure Analysis, Washington, D. C., 1968

Thomas Schelling

An absent-minded person who needs to remember to do an errand on the way to work may choose to drive an unaccustomed route, knowing that if he drives his usual route he will pursue his usual thoughts and nothing will remind him along the way of the errand he must stop for, while an unaccustomed route will continually remind him that there is some reason for his being in strange surroundings.

Thomas Schelling, ‘Enforcing Rules on Oneself’, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1985), p. 361

Thomas Schelling

Relinquish authority to somebody else: let him hold your car keys.

Commit or contract: order your lunch in advance.

Disable or remove yourself: throw your car keys into the darkness; make yourself sick.

Remove the mischievous resources: don’t keep liquor, or sleeping pills, in the house; order a hotel room without television.

Submit to surveillance.

Incarcerate yourself. Have somebody drop you at a cheap motel without telephone or television and call for you after eight hours’ work. (When George Steiner visited the home of Georg Lukacs he was astonished at how much work Lukacs, who was under political restraint, had recently published-shelves of work. Lukacs was amused and explained, “You want to know how one gets work done? House arrest, Steiner, house arrest!”)

Arrange rewards and penalties. Charging yourself $100 payable to a political candidate you despise for any cigarette you smoke except on twenty-four hours’ notice is a powerful deterrent to rationalizing that a single cigarette by itself can’t do any harm.

Reschedule your life: do your food shopping right after breakfast.

Watch out for precursors: if coffee, alcohol, or sweet desserts make a cigarette irresistible, maybe you can resist those complementary foods and drinks and avoid the cigarette.

Arrange delays: the crisis may pass before the time is up.

Use buddies and teams: exercise together, order each other’s lunches.

Automate the behavior. The automation that I look forward to is a device implanted to monitor cerebral hemorrhage that, if the stroke is severe enough to indicate a hideous survival, kills the patient before anyone can intervene to remove it.

Finally, set yourself the kinds of rules that are enforceable. Use bright lines and clear definitions, qualitative rather than quantitative limits if possible. Arrange ceremonial beginnings. If procrastination is your problem, set piecemeal goals. Make very specific delay rules, requiring notice before relapse, with notice subject to withdrawal.Permit no exceptions.

Thomas Schelling, ‘Self-Command in Practice, in Policy, and in a Theory of Rational Choice’, The American Economic Review, vol. 74, no. 2 (May, 1984), pp. 6-7

Thomas Schelling

Many of us have little tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we ought to foreswear. Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes. We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed. People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves. I have heard of a corporate dining room in which lunch orders are placed by telephone at 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning; no food or liquor is then served to anyone except what was ordered at that time, not long after breakfast, when food was least tempting and resolve was at its highest. A grimmer example of a decision that can’t be rescinded is the people who have had their jaws wired shut. Less drastically, some smokers carry no cigarettes of their own, so they pay the “higher” price of bumming free cigarettes.

In these examples, everybody behaves like two people, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert. The two are in a continual contest for control: the “straight” one often in command most of the time, but the wayward one needing only to get occasional control to spoil the other’s best laid plan.

Thomas Schelling, ‘Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management’, The American Economic Review, vol. 68, no. 2 (May, 1978), p. 290

Thomas Schelling & Morton Halperin

Conflict of interest is a social phenomenon unlikely to disappear, and potential recourse to violence and damage will always suggest itself if the conflict gets out of hand Man’s capability for self-destruction cannot be eradicated–he knows too much! Keeping that capability under control–providing incentives to minimize recourse to violence–is the eternal challenge.

Thomas Schelling & Morton Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control, Washington, 1985, p. 5