It’s crazy to think that the warning labels on most cigarette boxes cause people to smoke more rather than less. Yet the sad reality is that despite how well intentioned these labels might be, they literally increase the likelihood of someone lighting up a cigarette. This is a quick breakdown of why.
The Largest NeuroImaging Study Of Smokers ever Conducted:
In 2006, Martin Lindstrom conducted the largest ever neuroscience study of it’s kind, with a view to look inside the minds of 2081 smokers from America, England, Germany, Japan, and China. The study took over 3 years to complete, required 7 million dollars worth of funding, and it utilized the most advanced brain imaging technology available. The results were nothing short of astounding.
This is a snapshot from Buyology, where Lindstrom unpacks the study:
Dr Calvert presented me with the results. I was, to put it mildly, startled. Even Dr Calvert was taken aback by the findings: warning labels on the sides, fronts and backs of cigarette packs had no effect on suppressing the smoker’s cravings at all. Zero.
But this wasn’t half as amazing as what Dr Calvert discovered once she analyzed the results further. Cigarette warnings, whether they informed smokers they were at risk of contracting emphysema, heart disease or a host of other chronic conditions – had in fact stimulated an area of the smokers’ brains called the nucleus acumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot”. This region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex or gambling. When stimulated, the nucleus acumbens requires higher and higher doses to get its fix.
In short, the fMRI results showed that cigarette warning labels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nucleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up. We couldn’t help but conclude that those same cigarette warning labels intended to curb smoking, reduce cancer and save lives had instead become a killer marketing tool for the tobacco industry.
Clearly then, Lindstrom found compelling (I would say irrefutable) evidence indicating that the warnings labels ultimately light up the craving centre of the human brain, albeit unintentionally.
But wait, there’s more – Enter Terror Management Theory:
The basic idea behind terror management theory is that when something causes you to think about dying, the most common and natural response is to become terrified. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty plausible to me.
In her excellent book “The Willpower Instinct” Kelly McGonigal pinpoints the influential role of the terror management response with regards to cigarette warning labels.
A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words “WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer” and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, “Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!”
McGonigal isn’t as dramatic as Lindstrom in her dismassal or warning labels, suggesting that they might be effective at preventing people from taking up the habit initially, and they could also strengthen one’s intention to quite. Nevertheless, her primary argument is that ghastly cigarette warning labels increase stress, which then triggers a stress-relief strategy that smokers know all too well… lighting up a cigarette.