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Do Smokers Have Low Self-Control?

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Pearl

    July 29th, 2013 at 6:48 PM

    Low self control or not smoking is a tough habit to quit.And I thoroughly agree with the point about not being able to smoke at that moment.I have reduced my smoking now but when it was almost uncontrollable,when my smoking habits were at their peak,a slight delay or inability to smoke at that moment of urge did help not smoke that one cigarette.Smokers who are unable to quit should try this technique by somehow keeping themselves away at that point of time and chances are that the urge will go away.

  • keli

    July 30th, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    I kind of think that we are looking at this from the wrong angle. I think that smoking is like any other thing that we take to the extreme like eating or drinking or doing drugs, spending money whatever. We are doing this to fill a void somewhere that we are missing and this is what we choose. Shouldn’t we be looking for a way to fill that void ingstead of doing things lie taping shut the kpacks of cigarettes?

  • Olivia

    July 30th, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    Isn’t this what tobacco companies have counted on all along? that theyw ould get us all so hooked that we would literally feel like we had little control over the pull of nicotine anymore?

  • malcolm

    July 30th, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    does this mean those with low self control are at a risk thats higher than for others when it comes to smoking?my early teen son is someone who would qualify for low self control.does it mean I should keep an extra eye on him to prevent him from smoking?please help.

  • Mark Dempster Addiction Counselling

    August 16th, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    It would be interesting to see the real correlation between smoking and these other behaviours. The addiction of smoking is often seen outside of many twelve step programs, I wonder how important breaking this habit is and how much positive impact it could provide for a recovering addict.

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