Friday, 6 August 2010

Stubbing out thoughts of smoking leads smokers to end up smoking more

Try not to think of a white bear and what happens? You end up thinking of a white bear. This idea that suppressing thoughts makes them rebound stronger is well-established in psychology [pdf]. Now James Erskine and his co-workers have shown that the same or a similar process can lead behaviours to rebound too.

Eighty-five smokers (average age 31), none of whom were currently trying to quit, were divided into three groups for three weeks. One group was instructed to spend the middle week avoiding and suppressing all smoking-related thoughts. The second group were to think about smoking as much as they could during that second week; the third group acted as controls and didn't suppress or encourage smoking-related thoughts. Participants in all groups kept daily diaries of how much they smoked, their stress levels and how much they'd attempted to suppress smoking-related thoughts.

The main finding was that smokers in the suppression group smoked less than others during the middle week while they were suppressing smoking-related thoughts, but ended up smoking significantly more than the other smokers in the final week. In other words, trying to avoid thinking about smoking had a short term benefit but ultimately led to more smoking later on.

Erskine and his colleagues said this short-term benefit of thought suppression was 'troublesome' and could lead smokers to believe mistakenly that the strategy was beneficial.

Another finding to emerge was that smokers from all three groups who suppressed more smoking-related thoughts (as recorded in their evening diaries) tended to have a history of more failed attempts to quit smoking.

'Thought suppression may be more harmful than previously believed,' the researchers concluded. 'Our findings are especially relevant to populations that seek to control behaviours on an ongoing basis (e.g. addicts), but are also relevant to any individuals attempting to control their desires, thoughts, and behaviours.'

This new study comes after an earlier report by James Erskine, in which suppressing thoughts of chocolate led participants to eat more chocolate.

ResearchBlogging.orgErskine JA, Georgiou GJ, & Kvavilashvili L (2010). I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke: Effects of Thought Suppression on Smoking Behavior. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 20660892

Thanks to George Georgiou at the University of Hertfordshire who tipped the Digest off about this new research.


Anonymous said...

I can relate to this. I occasionally suffer from OCD with intrusive thoughts. The harder your try to eliminate them ... the worse they get.

As for smoking, the best advice I can give is this:

Quitting is about coping with failure.

Accept that you are going to relapse. And when you do, forgive yourself and rinse that pack under the sink.

Yewtree said...


I could never meditate until someone explained to me that it wasn't about suppressing thoughts that come up, but about not following a train of thought. When a thought arises, you just accept that it has arisen, and then go back to the meditative practice (typically, focussing on something else, such as breathing). Maybe this would help would-be quitters of smoking.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this would work with other things like sex or alcohol?

Anonymous said...

The more I tthink about stopping fighting Tobacco Control the more I do it. The more Anti-smoking lies I see the more I fight it...........I have a compulsion for freedom is this the addictive part of smoking where the heck we want to. Of course we have been down this path of extremism before:

Like all failed prohibitionist movements todays is pretty well over too! Its just a matter of time til the smoking bans are all abolished and the taxes returned to normal levels.

Heres a time line starting in 1900,dont be surprised to see the same thing playing out today nearly 100 years later.

1901: REGULATION: Strong anti-cigarette activity in 43 of the 45 states. "Only Wyoming and Louisiana had paid no attention to the cigarette controversy, while the other forty-three states either already had anti-cigarette laws on the books or were considering new or tougher anti-cigarette laws, or were the scenes of heavy anti- cigarette activity" (Dillow, 1981:10).

1904: New York: A judge sends a woman is sent to jail for 30 days for smoking in front of her children.

1904: New York City. A woman is arrested for smoking a cigarette in an automobile. "You can't do that on Fifth Avenue," the arresting officer says.

1907: Business owners are refusing to hire smokers. On August 8, the New York Times writes: "Business ... is doing what all the anti-cigarette specialists could not do."

1917: SMOKEFREE: Tobacco control laws have fallen, including smoking bans in numerous cities, and the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho and Tennessee.

1937: hitler institutes laws against smoking.

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