I quit smoking many years ago, but even today I can recall the unpleasantness of that time—the cravings, the obsessive thoughts. My strategy was to keep my mind and body busy all the time, in order to keep my thoughts of cigarettes at bay. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I relapsed a few times before I finally quit for good.
There were quitters’ support groups available at the time, but the idea didn’t make sense to me. Why would I want to sit around with other dreary addicts and talk incessantly about the very thing I was trying to banish from my mind? Wouldn’t that just undermine my willpower and leave me more miserable?
Well, no, as it turns out. New science now suggests that the worst thing smokers can do is try not to think about cigarettes. Banishing cigarettes and matches and ashtrays from your neurons may lead temporarily to less smoking, but the banished thoughts quickly rebound—nudging smokers to light up even more than they do usually.
The research is from the University of London. Psychological scientist James Erskine and his colleagues knew from previous experiments that people find it nearly impossible to suppress any thoughts for very long. This is the famous “don’t think about white bears” research, which showed that even random thoughts take on power once we decide we want them gone. But Erskine and colleagues wanted to take this a step further—to see if banishing thoughts actually shapes our actions as well as our thinking.
Here’s the study. The scientists recruited a large group of regular smokers, both men and women in the 20s and 30s. None of the smokers were trying to quit at the time, and indeed had no intention to quit; but the researchers did ask them how many times they had tried to quit in the past. They also measured their general tendency to suppress thoughts, which varies from individual to individual.
The volunteers were then given diaries and told to record how many cigarettes they smoked every day for three weeks. They also made notations about their stress levels every day during the three weeks. Finally, they were instructed—this is important—not to alter their normal smoking patterns in any way.
After doing this for a week, some of the volunteers were given this additional instruction: “Try not to think about smoking. If you do happen to have thoughts about smoking this week, try to suppress them.” Others were told nothing, while still others were told basically the opposite—to actively try to think about cigarettes as often as possible. They all did this for a week, and then spent the third and final week again simply recording their smoking and stress.
The results were intriguing. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those who tried to banish thoughts of cigarettes smoked significantly less than the others during the time they were actually suppressing their thoughts, but their puffing rebounded with a fury the following week: They smoked much more than the controls and—the most interesting finding—more than those who were indulging in thoughts of smoking. What’s more, the suppressors experienced much more stress during the time they were trying to control their thoughts—but this stress vanished in the final week as their smoking spiked.
Remember that these smokers were explicitly instructed not to change their normal smoking patterns. Yet the suppressors smoked less when they were actively controlling their thoughts. This suggests that, in the short term, suppression may really work. But that’s not necessarily a good thing for this reason: Smokers may perceive the strategy as beneficial—when in fact they are unwittingly triggering a relapse in the not-so-distant future.
Remember also that these volunteers were not even trying to quit. But when the scientists looked more closely at those who had tried to quit in the past, they tended to be those who habitually suppress unpleasant thoughts. This makes sense. The paradoxical rebound effect is no doubt even stronger in those who really, really want the craving to stop.
Wray Herbert’s new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be out in September. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and in The Huffington Post.