Carnegie Mellon University

Quitting Cold Turkey

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Why Smokers' Intentions Can Fizzle

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

If smokers aren't yearning for a cigarette when they make the decision to kick the habit — and most aren't — they aren't able to foresee how they will feel when they're 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 under-predict 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."

He added, "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 factors such as hunger, fatigue) to mis-predict their own behavior when in a "hot" state (hungry, fatigued), in part because they can't remember the intensity of their past cravings.

"The research not only has implications for helping smokers quit, but it also enlightens us on how nonsmokers may pick up the habit," said study coauthor George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon. "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?"

Related Links: About George Loewenstein  |  Social & Decision Science  |  College of Humanities & Social Sciences