Morbid warnings on cigarette packs could encourage some people to smoke

Every now and again a finding comes along that provides perfect ammunition for psychologists confronted by the tiresome claim that psychology is all ‘common sense’. Researchers have found that death-related health warnings on cigarette packs are likely to encourage some people to smoke. The surprising result is actually consistent with ‘Terror-management Theory’, according to which thoughts of mortality cause us to cling more strongly to our cultural beliefs and to pursue ego-boosting activities.

Jochim Hansen and colleagues first measured how important smoking was to the self-esteem of 39 student smokers. Example questionnaire items included ‘smoking allows me to feel valued by others’. Next, the smokers were divided into two groups: one group looked at two cigarette packs that featured death-related warnings, such as ‘Smokers die earlier’. The other group looked at cigarette packs that featured death-neutral warnings, such as ‘Smoking makes you unattractive.’

Fifteen minutes later all the students reported their attitudes to smoking; the questionnaire included items such as ‘Do you intend to quit smoking?’. Among the students for whom smoking was important to their self-esteem, those who looked at packets with death-related warnings subsequently reported more positive attitudes to smoking compared with those who looked at death-neutral packets. The exact opposite pattern was found for students for whom smoking was not important for their self-esteem.

In other words, for smokers who derive a self-esteem boost from smoking – perhaps they see it as a key part of their identity or they think it makes them look cool – a death-related cigarette packet warning can have the ironic effect of making them want to smoke more, so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality. The findings suggest that for these kinds of smokers, packet warnings that target positive beliefs about smoking (e.g. ‘Smoking makes you look unattractive’) could well be more effective.

‘To succeed with anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs one thus has to take into account that considering death may make some people smoke,’ the researchers concluded.
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ResearchBlogging.orgHansen, J., Winzeler, S., & Topolinski, S. (2010). When the death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 226-228 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.007

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 thoughts on “Morbid warnings on cigarette packs could encourage some people to smoke”

  1. These findings are also pretty consistent with Aronson's internal justification theory. The greater the possible danger the greater the internal change in value/commitment needed to continue the dangerous behavior. It's insane how cigarettes can really be THAT addictive.

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  2. I did not smoke until I saw these horrific pictures of damaged lungs. I took one look at them and theought…'well, that's just the lungs I deserve…'
    I've been smoking 40 a day ever since. For once, I applaud the nanny state.

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  3. Related to this tertially; I weighed 310 pounds before I started my first serious weight loss program, and I can absolutely attest to how much you justify your risky behavior to yourself in in your mind. What convinced me to lose weight was actually the realization that it would NOT solve all my problems– apparently somehow I'd convinced myself that quitting food was “the easy way out”.

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  4. let's not exagetaring things and do it for enjoyment and not addiction in that way will smoke less and maybe quit easier…nida

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  5. What the FDA did not tell the media or the public, and what the American Lung Association failed to express alarm over, is the fact that nicotine replacement products themselves have been found to have detectable levels of tobacco-specific

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  6. I actually heard about this the other day on the news, and yet you reported it in January…

    Anyway, I never found those images did any good, at most they disgusted smokers, but I doubt the majority even once thought about quitting because of them. But the fact that some people care more about the way they look than about their health is pretty disturbing

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