Fear Fails

I just came across a piece on the likely effectiveness of the new, gruesome cigarette warning labels developed by the FDA. The idea is to scare people into quitting by graphically illustrating the consequences of smoking, right there on the package. Think this will work?

Nope, me neither.

Over 70% of American smokers already want to quit. That’s over 31 million people – an enormous number. Most of them will fail. The gap between desire and performance suggests we’ve been largely successful at educating people about the risks of smoking, but much less successful at helping them actually stop doing it.

The point of failure isn’t educational. It’s behavioral.

Telling someone, “Stop smoking or terrible things might happen to you someday!” is about as ineffective an intervention as you can imagine, even when it’s backed up by images. Our brains don’t do well with might or someday, especially when the decisions that get us to might and someday are repeated, daily behaviors. It’s easy for us to talk ourselves out of a conditional and faraway goal; after all, this cigarette won’t kill you. And if the little decisions get repeated often enough, they may take their toll on your willpower* – or hit you at a time when you’re not in the mood to think about your long-term goals in the first place.

Is it any wonder that fewer than 5% of smokers successfully quit on their own? When we say, “Just stop smoking,” we’re asking smokers to do something extraordinarily difficult and complex. However, we often speak and act as though it’s easy. This is a lie, and it’s one that is deeply damaging for smokers – especially those who have tried to quit and failed.

That’s why I’m so proud to be involved with the Lit2Quit project. When my students first came to me with the notion of a smoking-reduction game, I told them they had one restriction: they could not tell people to quit. That’s not the missing link for most quitters. What they came up with – and what I’ve been honored to be involved with, over the past two years – focuses on the behavioral aspect of quitting. When you’re not feeling serious or goal-oriented, you might still be willing to play a game; when your willpower is not at its best, the game helps reduce your cravings so you’re more likely to be able to manage them.

The difference between our project and the FDA’s new approach is fundamental. The FDA seems to believe that more information will help people quit smoking. The assumption is that people only smoke because they don’t really understand how bad it is for them; if the FDA can just communicate the facts more effectively, people will change their actions. Our project assumes the opposite. People who want to quit know what to do, but the hard part is translating it into action. That’s where we can help. As we collect our data, we’re finding out just how much!

* There’s some indication that the resource-depletion model of willpower may actually be a mindset issue; if you believe that your willpower gets depleted over time, it does, but if not, not. However, there’s enough long-standing research into willpower as a depletable resource that I’m not yet ready to toss the notion without further personal investigation.

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