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Anti-smoking signs may cause people to reach for cigarettes

In 1863, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear – and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” According to a recent experiment…

No-smoking signs may actually prompt smokers to smoke. Mykl Roventine/Flickr

In 1863, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear – and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

According to a recent experiment conducted by my colleagues and me, Dostoevsky’s observation about ironic thought processes may have public health implications for no-smoking signs.

Our research suggests that smokers may be more motivated to reach for a cigarette when they encounter a representation of one in an image – even if it has a red line through it. Walking past one of these familiar icons can cause craving for cigarettes, whether the sign is consciously noticed or not.

Priming – not just smoke and mirrors

Objects, words, and symbols in the everyday environment can influence people’s thoughts and behaviours, even though they are often outside of conscious awareness. This is called “subconscious priming” and decades of research has shown that it’s a real and pervasive part of our daily experience.

Rain outside a window, even if not consciously noticed, can make people feel that their gloomy mood must stem from dissatisfaction about life in general; the presence of a briefcase in the room can boost economic drive; holding a warm cup of coffee makes people likelier to trust a stranger; and scrubbing one’s hands can wash away moral guilt.

Even when people consciously notice certain messages, if they’re framed negatively – as with the “no” in no smoking – the brain tends to subconsciously discount the negation. Freud noticed this back in 1925 when he noted, “We never discover a ‘no’ in the unconscious.”

A smoking gun

Our new finding stems from an experiment conducted at Yale University in 2010 in which a sample of smokers were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group viewed a stream of photographs depicting everyday scenes and locations: a sidewalk café, an airport lounge, a playground, and so on.

A subset of these images included a no-smoking sign placed in an inconspicuous location in the image (above a door frame, for instance, or on a table). The second group (the control group) viewed the same images with the no-smoking signs digitally removed.

Participants were first asked to judge whether a professional or an amateur photographer had taken each photograph. This was designed as a distraction task to occupy participant’s attention so that exposure to the no-smoking signs was truly passive and incidental – as it is in real life.

Once the smokers had viewed the stream of photographs, they participated in a “joystick” motivation task. In this task, the participants were shown a series of objects on a computer screen and told to “knock them off the screen” by moving the joystick as quickly as they could. The objects shown were everyday items (a soccer ball, a pencil, a can opener) mixed with a few smoking-related objects (a lit cigarette, an ashtray).

Casually observing a no-smoking sign may be enough to tip the balance when a smoker is deciding whether or not to light up. US Air Force Airman 1st Class Brittany Perry/Flickr

Previous research suggests that when people move their hand toward an object in a certain way, the brain treats this movement as an avoidance gesture. In a joystick or lever paradigm, people are generally quicker to move the lever (and consequently their hand) toward objects they are motivated to avoid, as if pushing them away.

Moving a lever towards the body, on the other hand, is treated as a “pulling toward” motion – an “approach” gesture, like you’re trying to draw the object closer to you. Given these motivational orientations, when participants are instructed to move a lever in the “pushing away” direction, they’re quicker to perform the motion when they are shown an image of something they wish to avoid, such as a snake. But they’re slower to perform the motion when shown a desirable object, such as an ice-cream cone. If instructed to move the lever towards the body, this instinct is reversed.

By instructing participants in our smoking study to move the lever first one way and then the other, while watching the stream of objects, split-second differences in response times could be recorded for the various stimuli. A score that reveals the degree to which participants were motivated to approach or avoid each item is then generated.

This method allowed us to assess levels of motivation to attain or reject the objects we displayed without participants’ knowing what was being measured. The finding? Incidental exposure to no-smoking signs dramatically increased the rate of cigarette-approach movements in smokers, all outside of participant awareness.

Igniting debate

Researchers must next evaluate how this subconscious effect manifests itself in the lives of smokers. While not every smoker who casually observes a no-smoking sign will be prompted to reach for a pack of cigarettes, even a weak influence on behaviour can be enough to tip the balance when the individual is deciding between one course of action and another.

While just a small step towards evaluating the impact of no-smoking signs, this research should prompt public health advocates and policymakers to further investigate their signage strategy. As more studies in this area are conducted, we may discover that plastering a city with thousands of bright red “craving reminders” may not the most effective way to curb smoking.

Acknowledgement: This article is adapted from a research report written by the author for The Oxonian Globalist, a student magazine at the University of Oxford.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The Conversation should have more thought-provoking, counterintuitive articles like this!

    The public health-related articles sometimes seem simplistic - 'look at these terrible statistics (smoking, obesity etc), therefore something must be done'.

    It would be great if they examined possible unintended consequences as well.

    For example, does banning large soft drinks mean people buy two small ones? Does taxing alcopops make teenagers buy spirits instead? If you feel you've been good at one meal - because you can only get healthy snack food - do you binge later? Do 'lower socio-economic groups' rebel against advice from nice middle-class experts?

    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to James Jenkin

      You raise some good points James. I often wonder at the focus on smoking, rather than say, obesity and alcohol abuse. The percentage of people smoking, and indeed taking up the habit, has dramatically dropped in the last couple of decades. I believe it is now less than 18% of the population that smoke, and this is continuing to fall.

      The other major health issues, obesity and alcohol abuse, are both on the rise in Australia, yet both of these issues are treated with kid gloves by health authorities…

      Read more
    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Judith Olney - on what basis are you saying that the harms from obesity and alcohol abuse are being treated "with kid gloves"?

      ON the contrary, there are large public health campaigns targeting both of those issues. You must have seen the multitude of articles, speeches and campaigns in both areas. Or if not - they are easy to find.

  2. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    Of course, the point of a no smoking sign is NOT to stop people smoking, it is to stop them smoking HERE. So yes, the signs do work.

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Wil B

      Unless of course you're in a place like France, where a no smoking sign is taken as a challenge that must be defeated. In such a scenario, the above research is confirmed!

    2. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to Wil B

      Well said, indeed, Wil B.

      I'm amazed at the responses here that focuses on the smokers.

      Who gives a flying fig about them, as long as they don't smoke where those signs appear, and they don't contaminate others?

      The signs aren't for their benefit.

      What kind of idiot, anyway, does something that is bad for them?

    3. Jeff Haddrick

      field manager

      In reply to Wil B

      Clifford "What kind of idiot, anyway, does something that is bad for them?"
      The obvious answer is - a tobacco addict. There are 3.5 million of them in Australia.
      The parallel question is- what sort of society condones the sale of a highly addictive deadly substance that costs the economy $30billion per year?
      Or more precisely which parts of society are content to have open ended sales of our biggest killer?
      The answer to that turns out to be two crucial sectors of society which don't include the majority of the public, who unlike you Clfford do give a ff about the premature deaths of their cousins.
      The crucial sectors are politicians who can milk the killer, politically by sticking it to the evil tobacco companies while they profit financially. And the schools of public health that provide the pollies with neat schemes to use in their hypocritical crusade.

  3. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    Showing that when smokers (or anyone) are given a stimulus that relates to somethign they would like to do, increases the chances they would do it. Is fairly self-evident. The signes are, as already pointed out, not about quiting/ absteniance but serve a legel requirement of 'no smoking here'.

    Some studies in the past have shown that seeing quit smoking messages also increases the chances of a smoking lighting up. Sadly, smokers have well developed systems - addiction - for finding cues to smoke.

    From a policy perspective the question is not whether it happens, it is whether benefits are greater than the unintended consequence. After all we are talking about people killing themselves and others when we are talking about smoking.

  4. Sonia Hines

    Internerd at Queensland University of Technology

    This was absolutely my experience as a smoker. I'd see a stop smoking ad on tv, and next thing I'd be outside sucking on a coffin nail. It seems that addict brains just focus on the desirable bits and filter out all the rest.

  5. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Our hospital has outdoor seats with big painted "No Smoking" signs painted on the ground in front of them. There are nearly always smokers on the seats, and butts littering the ground over the painted signs.

    No doubt the addiction and habituation are incredibly strong.

    How, then, is an organisation to indicate an area in which it is not permitted to smoke? Electrified fences that detect tobacco? Breath analysers?

    Should the figure inside the red circle with red slash be replaced with text - for example "combustion and inhalation of shredded tobacco wrapped in paper"?

    I'm not really trying to be facetious (this time) - but how would one construct a sign that achieves he aim of people not smoking at that location?

  6. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Jeff Haddrick

    It was more of a rhetorical question, really, because in all honesty, how can a person make sense of someone deliberately doing something to themselves that harms them? Couldn't such actions be considered a sign of madness in some sense? Wouldn't it be logical and sane to think that, on being told something you were doing was dangerous to you, you'd thank the person who told you and not do it any more?

    The questions you yourself raise are apposite indeed, although I don't have…

    Read more
  7. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Judith Olney

    I'm with you all the way on the obesity and alcohol abuse issues, although I don't really see these things as either/or.

    All of these three areas of human health are regularly discussed in the mass media and education today, that it is nigh-on general knowledge, and it doesn't make sense not to ask people to take responsibility for what they are doing to their own bodies, when it is clearly harmful to their health.

    And in the case of alcohol abuse, when it results in drink…

    Read more
    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to Clifford Chapman

      Clifford, I don't see obesity or alcohol abuse as an either/or issue. And while there is some media discussion, and education, there is no where near the focus on these health issues, as there has been with smoking.

      We have under 18% of the population that smokes, and this is falling every year, yet we have the rates of alcohol abuse rising, and the rates of obesity rising, with all the associated health problems that go with these issues. We now have over 60% of people in this country that are…

      Read more
  8. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    In the 70s I recall walking down the ramps at Flinders Street station in Melbourne and their 'Do Not Spit' signs. (remnants from the days of TB I imagine). Somehow I found my mouth salivating. I guess I was easily led. I never went on with the business I am proud to say.
    (Sadly such public signs have disappeared in the name of progress along with lots of signage at the original southern stand at the MCG from the days when the US airforce used it as a base. And the grafitti 'Menzies Out' near Hawksburn Station - oh that's enough nostalgia)

  9. Comment removed by moderator.

  10. aligatorhardt

    logged in via Twitter

    You can be sure that the image recognition works as evidenced by the heavy use of cigarette use in films and TV shows. It is an advertising tactic that has proven to get results. Sponsors do what works. As a long time smoker, I can attest to the sight of someone smoking triggering a desire to smoke.

  11. Clifford Chapman

    Retired English Teacher

    Judith, sorry, I didn't make myself clear, I meant either/or in terms of smoking or alcohol and obesity, as seems also to be the thrust of your reply here.

    All three issues have one major thing in commom, in my view, which is that of individual and personal responsibility. If I have the freedom to drink and drive, to eat until becoming obese, to smoke cigarettes, why don't I also have to bear any negative and harmful consequences that result?

    Of course governments should step in and ensure…

    Read more
  12. Judith Olney


    Sue Leraci,

    Hi Sue, what I mean by my statement is that if the government were serious about trying to address the issues of alcohol abuse, and obesity, there would be far more than just public health campaigns.

    As with smoking, there would be bans on advertising of alcoholic drinks, there would be bans on advertising junk food, and our labelling laws would be far more stringently applied, so that people were not misled by the claims of the corporations pushing these products. This would be…

    Read more