Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why is it so hard to quit smoking?

If you take even a quick look at the newspaper, you can see that there are massive public policy efforts aimed to curb smoking.  States are raising their cigarette taxes.  Cities around the world are banning smoking in restaurants.  Even Holland (where it seems like almost every vice is legal) no longer allows cigarette smoking in restaurants and public places.  What makes it so hard to quit smoking?

That would, of course, be a topic for a whole book, and not just one blog entry.  It does provide a good excuse for me to talk a bit about some research that I have done with Miguel Brendl, Claude Messner, and Kyungil Kim.  The question of interest to us is how a goal or a need affects what you like.  For now, let’s think about smoking.

The need to smoke is affected by many factors.  Some of them involve a physiological addiction to nicotine.  However, the situation also affects the need to smoke.  Smoking is often associated with drinking coffee, for example, so a cup of coffee will often trigger the need to smoke in a smoker.  So, the strength of a goal will grow and shrink.  Sometimes, the need will seem desperate, but at other times (say right after having a cigarette), it won’t seem so strong at all.

When the need to smoke is triggered, it affects what you like and dislike at that moment.  The idea that likes and dislikes can change over short periods of time shouldn’t be surprising.  After all, you may grab a CD to listen to in the car in the morning, only to find that you no longer feel like listening to it in the evening.  Foods that were quite appealing on one day may be much less appealing on another day.

One factor that changes your preferences is the goals that are engaged at any given moment. Most of us have the intuition that if you have any strong goal, then your preference for things that would help you satisfy that goal will increase.  If you really need to smoke, then suddenly, cigarettes will look really good to you.  We call this effect of goals valuation.  That is, having an active goal makes things related to that goal more valuable.  There is some experimental evidence for this kind of valuation.

What is potentially more interesting, though, is that in a 2003 paper in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, and a 2007 paper in Emotion, we find strong evidence for devaluation.  That is, having an active goal will decrease your liking for things that are unrelated to that goal.  So, a smoker with a high need to smoke is less interested in things like DVD players, french fries, and camping tents than that same person is when the need to smoke is low. 

We found evidence for this in many ways.  In one study with smokers, we had smokers participate in a study after sitting in a long lecture class.  They could not smoke during class.  One group was asked to stay in a classroom and was given a cup of coffee (to stimulate the need to smoke).  This group really had a high need to smoke.  The other group went outside the classroom. They were also given a cup of coffee, but the experimenter lit up a cigarette, and all of the participants did too.  For this group, the coffee was a way to help us make sure enough time went by that the nicotine would help dull the need to smoke.

Before getting on to what they thought the study was really about, the participants were asked if they were interested in buying raffle tickets.  For half of the people, the prize was three cartons of cigarettes that would be given out in a drawing a week later.  For the other half of the people, the prize was an amount of money equivalent to what you’d pay for three cartons of cigarettes.  So what happened?

People who were offered the raffle to win cigarettes were somewhat more likely to buy tickets if they had a high need to smoke than if they had a low need to smoke.  That is, there was some evidence for this idea of valuation. 

People who were offered the raffle to win cash bought tickets if they had a low need to smoke.  The group in the classroom (who had a high need to smoke) bought almost no tickets at all.  That is, when people had a high need to smoke, they were really uninterested in cash. 

There are two important things to take away from this.  First, even though people know abstractly that cash can be used to purchase cigarettes, their goals have a very concrete effect on their preferences.  So, things that are not obviously related to smoking are devaluated.  Second, the people who are inside the classroom and need a cigarette probably walked out of the classroom after the study and smoked a cigarette.  Presumably, if we had offered this raffle to them after having their cigarette instead, they would have been more interested in buying tickets to win cash.  So, cigarettes can change people’s preferences pretty rapidly.

This means that a smoker trying to quit smoking can talk quite a bit about how they are going to resist the urge to smoke.  But when that need gets strong, the goal system is going to make cigarettes more and more attractive and is going to make everything else less and less attractive to help make the smoker satisfy their need to smoke.  This operation of the motivational system is usually a good thing.  It operates for all sorts of beneficial goals that people have.  But for habitual smokers, it creates a lot of problems.