Trouble quitting?: A new Pitt-Carnegie Mellon smoking study may reveal why

August 26, 2008

PITTSBURGH--A new study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University sheds light on why smokers' intentions to quit "cold turkey" often fizzle out within days or even hours.

If a smoker isn't yearning for a cigarette when he makes the decision to kick the habit--and most aren't--he isn't able to foresee how he will feel when he's in need of a nicotine buzz.

Published in the September issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the study, "Exploring the Cold-to-Hot Empathy Gap in Smokers," bolsters the theory that smokers not in a state of craving a cigarette will underestimate and underpredict the intensity of their future urge to smoke.

"We have observed previously that the idea of smoking a cigarette becomes increasingly attractive to smokers while they are craving," said the study's lead investigator and University of Pittsburgh professor of psychology Michael Sayette. "This study suggests that when smokers are not craving, they fail to appreciate just how powerful their cravings will be. This lack of insight while not craving may lead them to make decisions--such as choosing to attend a party where there will be lots of smoking--that they may come to regret."

The study looked at the cold-to-hot empathy gap--that is, the tendency for people in a "cold" state (not influenced by such visceral factors as hunger, fatigue) to mispredict their own behavior when in a "hot" state (hungry, fatigued), in part because they can't remember the intensity of their past cravings.

The researchers gathered 98 male and female smokers for two experimental sessions and placed them in one of three groups: "hot," "cold," and a comparison group. Those in a "hot" state were asked to abstain from smoking for 12 hours prior to Session 1 and then were induced to crave a cigarette by holding, but not smoking, a lit one.

Those in a "cold" state smoked up until Session 1 began and did not hold a lit cigarette. The comparison group did not attend Session 1.

During Session 1, "hot" and "cold" participants were asked to indicate the minimum amount of money they would need to delay smoking for five minutes in Session 2, when all participants would be in a "hot" state. Smokers in all three groups were required to abstain from smoking for 12 hours prior to Session 2 and would experience the lit cigarette cue described above.

During Session 2, when the subjects in all three groups were craving, they were given the chance to revise the amount of money they would need to delay smoking for five minutes. As expected, the "cold" smokers from Session 1 now significantly increased the amount of money they would need to delay smoking for just five minutes, while those originally in a "hot" state during Session 1 did not request an increase.

The study participants from the "cold" group were much less likely to accurately predict the amount of money they would need to put off lighting up. In fact, in Session 2, nearly half of the "cold" smokers requested an amount of money higher than what they had initially predicted, while only a quarter of the "hot" group did the same.

"These findings suggest that smokers are likely to underpredict their own future desire to smoke when they're not craving a cigarette," said study coauthor George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

"The research not only has implications for helping smokers quit, but it also enlightens us on how nonsmokers may pick up the habit. If smokers can't appreciate the intensity of their need to smoke when they aren't currently craving, what's the likelihood that people who have never smoked can do so," said Loewenstein.
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Founded in 1787, the University of Pittsburgh is an internationally renowned center for learning and research in the arts, sciences, humanities, professions, and health sciences, as well as a partner in regional development. The University offers approximately 400 distinct degree programs and confers 7,000 degrees annually. With 34,000 students and more than 12,000 faculty, research associates, and staff on five campuses, the University, a public institution of higher education, contributes $1.5 billion to the local economy and provides a wide range of programs and services for residents of Western Pennsylvania. Pitt is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, an organization of 62 preeminent doctorate-granting research institutions in the United States and Canada.

Carnegie Mellon is a private research university with a distinctive mix of programs in engineering, computer science, robotics, business, public policy, fine arts and the humanities. More than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students receive an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovation. A small student-to-faculty ratio provides an opportunity for close interaction between students and professors. While technology is pervasive on its 144-acre Pittsburgh campus, Carnegie Mellon is also distinctive among leading research universities for the world-renowned programs in its College of Fine Arts. A global university, Carnegie Mellon has campuses in Silicon Valley, Calif., and Qatar, and programs in Asia, Australia, and Europe.

University of Pittsburgh

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