One Nudge Does Not Fit All


The BPS Research Digest blog reports that those dire health warnings on cigarette packs may actually drive some people to smoke. Psychologists interviewed 39 student smokers about the importance of smoking to their self-esteem. The students were then divided into two groups and shown two different sets of cigarette packs — one set with death-related health warnings and one with death-neutral warnings.

Among students who consider smoking important to their self-esteem, those who viewed the death-related warnings reported more positive attitudes toward smoking than students who viewed the death-neutral warnings. “In other words, for smokers who derive a self-esteem boost from smoking — perhaps they see it as a key part of their identity or they think it makes them look cool — a death-related cigarette packet warning can have the ironic effect of making them want to smoke more, so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality.”


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  1. science minded says:

    When my husband first read about the cancer connection in the Times, he stopped smoking. That was umpteen years ago. I guess a good question is, what makes for self esteem. For my daughter, I have noticed that having a car has made a difference. Seems to me, however, that one should not need smoking, driving, coffee to feel that sense of self-worth. Perhaps a real sense of accomplishment does the trick. This varies and is not the same for everyone. I just had a conversation recently with a colleague and she admitted that she does not have my aspirations. I explained that I did not have them either at first. Just started with an interest in making a real contribution to my field.

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  2. DrS says:

    “so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality.”

    I think they are missing the point. Nobody smokes extra to convince themselves that there is no warning, or that they don’t believe it.
    If it’s important to your self esteem, then it’s all about image. Laughing in the face of death is cool, in sort of a post-punk rock way.

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  3. Christopher Thompson says:

    Driving fast kills– and that’s precisely why teens do it. Risk-taking behavior is common in many species… not just ours.

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  4. Finley says:

    Didn’t Mad Men already determine ths about three years ago?

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  5. Brian Moynihan says:

    Thailand has the interesting policy of posting really nasty images of smoking-related diseases on their cigarette packages. I wonder how that would change the study. My guess is that the abstract thought of death could be considered cool for some smokers, but the vision of diseased flesh would be much less so.

    In my time in the country, I saw very few Thais who smoked, but the images didn’t seem to slow down the European smokers!

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  6. Stephen says:

    WTF? on this whole article.

    #3: I’m 23 years old…but I have always driven fast and I don’t do it b/c it’s a risky behavior…most likely b/c I’m impatient and like to get where I’m going faster.

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  7. William G says:

    Is there a possibility that the people who smoke for self esteem are encouraged by the fact that they are “cheating death” by smoking the deadly cigarettes and not instantly dying?

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  8. David L says:

    I think teens are just really, really bad at recognizing the importance of future consequences resulting from their actions now, because they haven’t had the chance to experience a lot of averse consequences as a result of their actions from a long time ago. It totally screws up the way they value things like health and longevity in relation to social acceptance.

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