My first exposure to behavioral economic theory occurred when I was writing on the topic of relapse prevention in the early 1980s. At that time, I was consulting with Professor Lee Beach, a colleague in my department whose expertise is in the area of decision-making research and theory. Together, we were trying to understand if the process of relapse in people who were trying to give up a bad habit such as smoking could be considered a rational or irrational decision or choice. It appeared to us that the process of relapse often involved a series of choices or "minidecisions" that successively increased the probability that an individual eventually would experience a lapse, despite the original commitment to abstinence. Together, we coined the term apparently irrelevant decisions to describe the rationalizations that many people use to "explain" a decision that otherwise appeared to increase the risk of relapse. As an example, one recent ex-smoker told his spouse that he was going out for a long walk to get some exercise, and then walked across town to a store that sold his favorite brand of cigarettes at discount rates; he ended up buying a pack and smoking several cigarettes on his way back home. Another client of mine who had made a commitment to stop drinking decided after 3 months of abstinence that it was now OK for him to purchase a bottle of sherry to keep in his home, "just in case guests drop by for a visit." He ended up drinking the bottle himself several days later after an argument with his wife. In both cases, the apparently irrelevant decision (to take a long walk, or to purchase the sherry for guests) appeared to us to be rationalized rather than irrational in content. However, we were still puzzled by the sudden shift in goals as these individuals suddenly "changed their minds" and succumbed to temptation when faced with the immediate temptation of cigarettes or alcohol, despite their long-term prior commitment to abstinence.
On one day during this period, I came to my office to find a reprint of a journal article Lee Beach had left for me to read. On the cover page, he had written in bold red ink this message: "The truth is in Ainslie!" The article, written by George Ainslie, was entitled "Specious reward: A behavioral theory of impulsiveness and impulse control" (published in 1975 in the Psychological Bulletin). This was, indeed, a breakthrough in our understanding of the sudden shifts in intentions many individuals seemed