Why Are So Many Smokers Still Smoking?

In a recent study, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology try to explain why these people continue to smoke in a day and age where the long-term health risks attending the habit are all but impossible to miss. Their findings are published in the journal PLoS One.

In an article published in The New York Times, study authors Eyal Ert and Eldad Yechiam explain how their study rejects the common notion that smokers are inherently drawn to risks.

“Some evidence suggests that smokers do take more risks than nonsmokers,” they write. “They are more often involved in traffic accidents, less likely to wear seat belts and more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. Women who smoke even have mammograms less frequently than their nonsmoking counterparts.”

“But we don’t believe that smokers have a greater tolerance for risk,” they continue.

Rather than attributing the behavior to a general proclivity for risk-taking, the researcher argue that the dangerous habit is perpetuated by a fundamental lack of self-control that restricts the ability to defer gratification and consider long-term outcomes.
Studying Risk-Taking: The Iowa Gambling Task

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used a long-time staple of cognitive experimentation: a card game known as the “Iowa gambling task,” designed by behavioral psychologists in the 1990s to measure risk-taking in individuals. The experiment proceeds by presenting the subjects with four decks of cards and asking them to pick at random from one of them. In these decks, each card reveals a specific financial outcome –– a gain of $100, a loss of $175, a gain of $200, and so on.

The goal, of course, is to maximize winnings.

However, only two decks yield an overall gain. While these decks contain small gains, their losses are even smaller. The other two decks contain large payoffs, but larger losses.

Depending on which pair an individual favors, researchers can determine whether he or she is prone to risk taking.
Smokers And Short-Term Satisfaction

In light of a recent study that found no significant difference between smokers and nonsmokers performing the Iowa gambling task, Ert and Aldad modified the experiment to test the proclivity for immediate satisfaction rather than general risk taking. To test this, the researchers implemented a new deck that yielded tempting gains in nine out of 10 draws, but disastrous losses in one out of 10 draws.

In the modified experiment, smokers favored the new deck 1.5 times more than nonsmokers, leading researchers to conclude that many smokers could simply not resist the short-term satisfaction –– even in the face of obvious long-term losses.

This suggests that a smoker’s habit is not maintained by a general tendency to take risks. Instead, they are driven by an inability to stay away from activities that are “profitable” most of the time yet disastrous eventually. These findings could impact current cessation methods by highlighting immediate inconvenience rather than long-term health risks. Rather than stressing the danger of lung cancer and other complications, health authorities can deter smokers by problematizing the “payoff” associated with the short-term satisfaction.

In other words, the winning strategy may not stress the horrors of the “10th card,” but the small inconveniences associated with the other nine. Such strategies are already at play in society: smoking bans and high taxes are examples of deterrents designed to address the immediate habit itself rather than its eventual outcomes. If the study is right, these are the types of manipulations that will eventually succeed.

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