FYI: Fear has never stopped anyone from smoking
The mind has a very simple process for deciding whether it wants to repeat an experience or avoid it in the future. It asks the question, “Was this fun or painful?” and follows up accordingly.
Of course, that’s an extremely simplified model of how it all works, but it serves to illustrate a point.
We all know smoking is bad for our health. The research shows it, the numbers prove it, our declining health reminds us of it every day. Yet, we keep smoking, because when we light up, our brain thinks, “this is fun”, so the behavior is reinforced.
The long-term harm and health hazards smoking brings with it are too far detached from the action of smoking, so our mind never makes the connection.
In a study from the University of Illinois (Ober, 1968), researchers argued that in order to quit smoking, we must break the chain between the act of smoking and the gratification that follows, and that the key to doing this is self-control.
The problem is, self-control is an elusive beast. You set out bold and determined to break your habits, but then your self-control slips away and lets you down.
So in this specific study, the researchers set out to test three different methods of developing self-control, and to test which one would be most effective in helping participants quit smoking.
Study participants kick smoking habit by developing self-control in just 10 sessions
Sixty participants took part in the study. They each smoked an average of 20 cigarettes per day, had been smoking for more than a year, and wished to stop smoking.
The participants were randomly split into 4 groups, 3 of which were given a different type of treatment to help them quit smoking by developing self-control.
The 4th group was given no treatment whatsoever. In scientific research, this is called a “control group”. It helps researchers understand whether the changes happening in the test groups are due to the experiment, or to external factors.
In two of the groups, the participants were educated about the long-term adverse effects of smoking, and how to exercise self-control. They were also given cards with statements such as “I have the self-control not to smoke this cigarette” and “I don’t have to play the smoking game”. There were additional differences between these two groups, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
The third group was given a pocket-sized device that would allow participants to give themselves an electric jolt every time they craved a cigarette. They were also educated about the long-term adverse effects of smoking, and how to exercise self-control.
By the tenth session, all participants within the three treatment groups had managed to drastically cut down on cigarette smoking. The “control group” however, saw no such improvement.
Motivation is important, but awareness and reinforcement are crucial for building self-control and breaking bad habits
The study mentioned above indicates that “self-control can be established over smoking behavior” (Ober, 1968).
All participants in the study had the motivation to quit smoking. However, the three treatment groups were also made aware of the adverse effects, and also given cues to help reinforce their will-power.
This reinforcement took the form of either written messages for participants to read prior to lighting up a cigarette, or a pocket device that allowed participants to jolt themselves when they craved a cigarette.
The second technique (electric jolt) is called aversion conditioning, and its effects have been studied extensively over 80+ years of research and clinical studies. In fact, it has been found effective against all sorts of habits and compulsive behaviors including smoking, alcoholism, overeating, and gambling.
Ober, D. C. (1968). Modification of smoking behavior. Journal Of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 32(5, Pt.1), 543–549. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0026403