No Smoking Signs Just Make Smokers Want to Smoke More

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There's something to be said about being told specifically not to do something: It makes you kind of want to do it anyway, right? Translate this into a psychological study on the impact of no smoking signs and you have a conundrum: Telling smokers not to light up actually increases their cravings for nicotine. And what do you know, we find yet another failed attempt at getting New Yorkers to quit the habit.

Utilizing a "joystick test" to assess natural instincts and the test subject's willingness to embrace or avoid (in this case) various photos -- some of which had no smoking signs in the background -- researcher Brian Earp of Oxford reached the conclusion that the smokers were more drawn to the photos with no smoking signs than without. Earp believes this to be the natural result of being told not to do something, and perhaps even being reminded of the act of smoking itself.

Earp told the UK's Daily Mail, "No smoking signs in particular are everywhere. If you're a smoker walking down a street you're likely to pass five or six of these signs in windows or on doors. If you have a chronically positive attitude to smoking this could boost your craving."

Earp presented the study's results at the British Psychological Society's annual meeting in Glasgow on Friday. Follow-up research that has yet to be published indicates that Earp's findings may indeed be legitimate. Who needs a cigarette now?


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Brian Earp
Brian Earp

Hi Averie,

This is Brian Earp here from Oxford -- great article, and thanks for spreading the word. Just a small clarification for your readers. In the first task (an initial, priming task) smokers were shown a series of photographs, some of which had "no smoking" signs in them. In the control condition, a separate group of smokers were shown the very same sequence of photographs, but with all of the "no smoking" signs digitally edited out. So both groups saw identical images, with the ONLY difference being the presence or absence of "no smoking" signs. Then both groups took the joystick test you mention, which consisted of rapidly responding to a sequence of NEW stimuli, namely "neutral" objects like can openers, pencils, and soccer balls, and -- every so often -- a "smoking-related" stimulus, like a lit cigarette. The main finding is that smokers in the first condition ONLY -- that is, the condition in which they were exposed to the no smoking signs in a passive manner, very much like what would happen while walking down the street -- were much more instinctively drawn to the pictures of lit cigarettes compared to the neutral items. Even more interesting, though, is that some of the smokers in the first condition actually consciously noticed the signs; while others of them didn't notice the signs at all (the signs weren't very conspicuous). Surprisingly, BOTH types of smokers showed the same boost in motivation to attain cigarettes. That is, the smokers didn't even have to consciously notice or pay attention to the signs for them to "get inside their head" and influence their need-to-smoke. Thought your readers might like to have that clear.


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