Waking the Unconscious Smoker
Thursday, June 28, 2007
By Wray Herbert
When 19-year-old Lauren Bacall made her debut in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not, she and leading man Humphrey Bogart became the iconic romantic couple of the era, both on-screen and off. And in what is now a classic celluloid pick-up scene, the world-weary boat captain Steve Morgan lights a cigarette for the sultry American pickpocket “Slim” Browning, forever linking the image of wafting smoke with sexuality and adventure in the minds of thousands of young Americans.
Bogart died of throat cancer thirteen years later at the age of 57, but the romance between Hollywood and tobacco has endured over the years. Indeed, the frequency of on-screen smoking has increased in recent years, with modern leading men like Johnny Depp and Bruce Willis carrying on the Bogart tradition. What’s different in 2007 is society’s awareness of what a public health scourge smoking is, and there has been growing pressure on filmmakers and the trade to be more socially responsible about romanticizing the deadly habit for young people. So far without results: Smoking is still commonly depicted even in PG and PG-13 movies, and the Motion Picture Association of American has nixed R-rating cigarettes.
Given the industry’s resistance to change, scientists have been working to prove that on-screen smoking is itself an unhealthy habit—that it weakens anti-smoking zeal, creates positive emotional associations with cigarettes, and ultimately converts non-smokers to smokers. An estimated 4,000 teenagers take up smoking every day, and 1,500 join the ranks of daily smokers. Might Hollywood play some part in this problem?
What people say about the influence of movies on their behavior is notoriously unreliable, because everyone knows it’s not cool to be manipulated. This is especially true with regard to smoking because of the widespread social disapproval of cigarettes these days. So University of Waterloo psychologist Sonya Dal Cin and her colleagues decided to explore what’s going on unconsciously in young moviegoers when they watch a leading man smoke. They had a group of young men, average age 19, watch one of two film clips from the movie Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis. Half of the viewers saw a clip in which terrorist-hunting hero John McClane is smoking; the others also watched a clip of McClane efficiently dispatching terrorists, but sans cigarettes. About half the young men were smokers; the rest had never taken a puff in their lives.
Then the psychologists gave the volunteers a slew of tests. They asked them about their attitudes and beliefs about smoking and smokers, and about the likelihood that they themselves would smoke. They also gave them an interesting new test designed to measure their “transportability”: Some people get sucked more easily and thoroughly into a story, and the theory is that these people identify more intensely with fictional characters. Dal Cin thought this personality trait might be relevant to the movie’s influence on a viewer’s attitudes and behavior. Finally, they gave them a test to tap into their implicit—or unconscious—associations between smoking and their sense of self.
It’s important to know a little about this last test. This is a reaction time test, in which participants very rapidly view and react to a series of images. In this study, some of the images depicted smoking paraphernalia, and some not. Participants have to instantaneously decide if an image is relevant to their life or not by pushing a button. The idea is to eliminate as much conscious deliberation as possible, and thus tap into more automatic cognitive processing. It’s a highly regarded laboratory tool for studying subtle influences, because even when our conscious mind is saying smoking is bad, there may be compelling thoughts about smoking churning deeper in the neurons.
And the results say just this. As reported in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science, the more that viewers identified with a smoking Bruce Willis, the stronger their unconscious associations between smoking and self-concept. Strikingly, this was equally true for smokers and for those who had never inhaled in their life. Remember that these volunteers were 19 years old; they weren’t “impressionable adolescents.” Yet even these young adults, who had gotten this far without even getting close to taking up the habit, were now “thinking” about themselves as smokers, based on a relatively brief exposure to a heroic depiction of smoking.
The psychologists theorize that the mere perception of smoking may stimulate the “impulsive brain,” activating “scripts” like “myself as smoker” that would otherwise lie dormant. This obviously does not mean that health-conscious people are going to run out and buy a pack of Marlboros just because they see Johnny Depp light up, but it could weaken their resolve to support anti-smoking laws and similar public health initiatives. And it could keep smokers who are already hooked from quitting by keeping those unconscious scripts running.
This study also says a lot about the power of story in general. Bruce Willis has apparently come to recognize this. In this summer's fourth installment in the Die Hard series, Willis is as world-weary as Bogart ever was. But at Willis’s insistence, his terrorist-obsessed anti-hero does not smoke.
For more insights into the quirks of human behavior, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:45 PM