Do you believe in change?
I do, because on at least one occasion I have managed to. And in spite of the fact that apparently, however urgent the change that needs to happen is, we have just a one in nine chance of making it happen. In 1995 I managed to end my 15-year love-affair with cigarettes. Because my mother made me.
For the first fifteen years that I smoked my mother’s strategy for getting me to stop smoking was to say every time she saw me “When are you going to give up this disgusting habit? You know it’s going to kill you. And I know you’re just doing it to upset me.” All this achieved was that I stopped smoking around her, but would chain smoke to make up for lost time as soon as I got away from her.
In 1995 I was living in Poland, where a combination of managing an exuberant but inexperienced team of 15 young teachers and my inexperience in doing this had doubled my cigarette consumption, (i.e. I was now on 40 a day).. My mother sent me a couple of articles from The Guardian, one which suggested that people who smoke may have good, valid, rational reasons for smoking, and the other, a book review of “Cigarettes are Sublime” by Richard Klein. This was surprising, to say the least.
When your mother says smoking is cool …
I called my mother, and she said to me, “I can understand why you smoke. You’d never have achieved everything you’ve done if you didn’t.” Then she said, “I’m testing a new theory that smokers should be appreciated, and not criticised, for how they manage their stress and anxiety levels.”
Have you ever heard something that made the neurons in your brain start rewiring themselves on the spot? Wait … what? First of all, my mother had never used the word “achieve” in relation to me, or anyone else. And, secondly, I totally, SO could have done everything I’d done without cigarettes.
I gave up smoking for two reasons: first of all, I couldn’t tolerate the idea that I wouldn’t have achieved what I had without cigarettes; and secondly, because my mother had suddenly started appreciating my smoking habit and the achievements that came from it. And so, obviously, I had to stop smoking, just to annoy her.
What could be the science behind this?
I remember learning about cognitive dissonance during my psychology degree when we were studying the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you give a patient a sugar pill, and tell the patient that it will cure their symptoms, and the patient’s symptoms get better. Cognitive dissonance is when you give a patient a sugar pill and you tell them it will make them better, but also that it’s just a sugar pill; in this case patient’s symptoms still get better, in fact, cognitive dissonance makes the placebo effect even stronger. So the patient knows that the pill doesn’t do anything whatsoever, but agrees to take it anyway, and feels better.
How your brain deals with conflicting ideas
Holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, like, “this is a sugar pill” and “the doctor says this will make me better”, or “smoking is bad for me” and “I’m an intelligent person who makes good choices”, creates an unpleasant feeling that Psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 called cognitive dissonance. And when we have conflicting ideas, and experience dissonance, we have two options:
- we either change our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours – really, really, really difficult, a 10% chance of doing that
- or, 90% more often, we decide to minimise or ignore the information that conflicts with our beliefs.
As the economist, GK Gilbraith, said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
How to give smokers a hand
How does cognitive dissonance work with smoking? When we smoke, we know it’s bad for us and this is in conflict with our need to see ourselves as good, intelligent people who make good choices. So we smoke, obviously. Don’t bother trying to reason with smokers.
So if you want to help someone you love stop smoking, try and imagine the trade-offs they are making to get through the day, and appreciate them for how well they’re managing their complex lives – because they smoke. Appreciating people for who they are and what they’ve accomplished as a result of the choices they’ve made is a powerful way of reducing the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance. And this reduction in stress might be enough to break out of the vicious cycle of feeling bad about smoking, and feeling bad makes you want to smoke, which makes you feel bad for smoking, which makes you want to smoke even more, etc.
What to replace smoking with
Finally, smokers, there are plenty of non-lethal things you can do to self-medicate to get through the challenges of every-day life.
You’ll need to find things that replace all the things cigarettes do for us, which include,
giving us something to do with our hands in social situations, socialising, meditation breaks throughout the day, and relaxing and prolonging pleasurable moments.
The solution: our smartphones. They look cool, give us something to do with our hands, something to talk about so we can break the ice and socialise, we can reclaim our meditation moments with cute baby animal videos (which research shows makes us happy and more productive), and we now we take selfies to commemorate those special moments.
I’d like to leave you with this question: who are you going to appreciate for having a successful life – because of their bad habit?