Study Finds Smoking More Psychological than Physical Addiction

Study Finds Smoking More Psychological than Physical Addiction

A new study suggests that cravings for cigarettes have more to do with social and psychological cues than actually being deprived of an addictive substance. This finding could lead to better methods of treating nicotine addiction, as more focus needs to be placed on the psychology behind smoking. The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, could also help explain why nicotine patches and gum are often ineffective in helping people quit smoking.

Dr. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University’s psychology department conducted two studies. In the latest study, he and his colleagues looked at the smoking habits and cravings of flight attendants working for the Israeli airline El Al. They monitored each attendant on two flights—one was 10 to 13 hours and the other 3 to 5 hours. The participants were asked questions about their cravings at points throughout the flights.

They found that the length of the flight didn’t significantly impact their craving levels, as their cravings were about the same on both the longer and shorter flights. Cravings were actually higher at the end of the shorter flights than the longer ones, suggesting that the cravings increased as the flight came to an end. 

In the earlier 2005 study, the researchers studied Jewish smokers who were forbidden to smoke on the Sabbath. He interviewed the participants three days a week at the end of the day—on the Sabbath, on a regular weekday, and on a weekday when they were asked to refrain from smoking.

Dr. Dar found that cravings were very low on the morning of the Sabbath, when participants knew they couldn’t smoke. Cravings increased toward the end of the day, when smokers anticipated the next day. Cravings on the normal weekday were just as high as the day they refrained from smoking, suggesting that smoking doesn’t have very much to do with being deprived of nicotine.

After taking both of these studies into consideration, the researchers believe that while nicotine affects people physiologically, it doesn’t create biological withdrawal symptoms as heroin does. Instead of the body “needing” nicotine, people continue smoking because a habit has been established, and they crave cigarettes in response to cues that are associated with smoking.

Looking at smoking as “mind over matter” could help provide more efficient treatments for quitting smoking that focus on the psychological aspects of smoking rather than the physical elements.

Source: Science Daily, Smoking Mind Over Smoking Matter: Surprising New Study Shows Cigarette Cravings Result from Habit, Not Addiction, July 13, 2010

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