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Study Probes Why Smokers Find It Hard to Quit

When not in a state of craving, they may underestimate intensity of future urge to light up

TUESDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthDay News) -- If you're not craving a hit of nicotine the moment you declare you are quitting smoking, your battle just got a little tougher, say researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

"We have observed previously that the idea of smoking a cigarette becomes increasingly attractive to smokers while they are craving," lead investigator Michael Sayette, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychology, said in a university news release. "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, published in the September issue of Psychological Science, examines the "cold-to-hot empathy gap" -- that is, the tendency for people in a "cold" state (one not influenced by visceral factors such as hunger or fatigue) to improperly predict their own behavior when in a "hot" state (hungry, fatigued). This is, in part, because those in the cold state can't recall the intensity of their past cravings.

The researchers gathered 98 smokers for two experimental sessions. Those put in a "hot" state were asked to not smoke for 12 hours prior to the first session, then were induced to crave a cigarette by holding but not smoking a lit one. Those in a "cold" state smoked up until the first session but did not hold a lit cigarette. A comparison group skipped the first session completely.

During the first session, "hot" and "cold" participants were asked how much money they would need to delay smoking for five minutes in the second session, a time when all participants would be in a "hot" state. Smokers in all three groups had to abstain from smoking for 12 hours before the second session started, and were asked to hold -- but not smoke -- a lit cigarette during the session.

When asked the money question in the second session, the "cold" smokers from the first session asked for significantly more money to delay smoking for just five minutes while those originally in a "hot" state did not request an increase.

Those from the "cold" group were also much less likely to accurately predict how much money they would need to delay lighting up. Almost half of the "cold" smokers requested more money than what they had initially predicted, while only 25 percent 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," study co-author George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon, said in the news release. "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?"

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about how to quit smoking.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Carnegie Mellon University, news release, Aug. 26, 2008

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