Smoking is a global health concern. Despite the obvious negative consequences of smoking, people continue to take up smoking and persist in smoking habits. Research into the behavior that motivates smokers has examined impulsivity and risk/reward elements and has found that although smokers may be more impulsive and take more risks, they do so even though they are fully aware of the risks involved with smoking. In studies using the Iowa Gambling Task, smokers’ and nonsmokers’ performances have been both similar and different, although smokers have appeared to occasionally demonstrate less ability to choose long-term rewards over immediate rewards, despite the risks.
Eyal Ert of the Faculty of Agriculture Food and Environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wanted to add to the existing body of literature on the subject of smoking behavior. Using a sample of 100 college students, made up mostly of individuals who smoked less than 10 cigarettes per day, Ert conducted an experiment that measured risk taking and self-control. The results revealed that the smokers were overcome by temptation for instant rewards far more than the nonsmokers. This finding suggests that it is not risk taking in and of itself, but low self-control that motivates smoking behavior.
The results of this study can be interpreted to indicate that smokers, who are also less likely to wear seatbelts, participate in preventive health care and more likely to engage in sexually risky activities than nonsmokers, are not merely high-risk-sensation seekers. They just have lower levels of self-control than their non-smoking peers.
Ert believes current efforts to reduce temptation have been effective at minimizing smoking for some people because they target self-control. For instance, banning smoking indoors and outdoors in certain cities has made it more difficult for smokers to engage in smoking activities. They are less able to immediately act on temptation and instead must utilize patience and planning. This delay can often help strengthen their self-control and lead to make the choice not to smoke at that moment.
Ert also believes that strategies like taping cigarette packs shut could help delay instant decision making and strengthen self-control for some people. Ert added, “Future studies should examine whether manipulations of this type are particularly effective for individuals who are chronically low on self-control.”
Ert, E., Yechiam, E., Arshavsky, O. (2013). Smokers’ decision making: More than mere risk taking. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68064. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068064
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