Study of the Day: A Small Upside to Smoking—It Restores Depleted Willpower

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Yes, smoking kills. But new research in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology uncovers a positive side effect on a person's self-control.

Study of the Day

PROBLEM: Tobacco use kills five million people a year, and smokers expire about 14 years earlier than nonsmokers on average. Still, does smoking have an upside when it comes to self-control?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by psychologist Bryan W. Heckman exposed 132 nicotine-dependent smokers to an emotional video depicting environmental damage. The members of the control group were allowed to express their reactions to the footage while those in the experimental condition suppressed theirs. The latter group, the thinking goes, have to deplete their self-control resources in order to successfully suppress their reactions. Half of the participants in each group were then permitted to smoke a cigarette before all of them completed a frustrating task that required willpower.

RESULTS: The subjects who weren't allowed to smoke after their self-control was depleted demonstrated less persistence on the final behavioral task compared to those with intact willpower. This performance decrement, however, was absent among the participants who were permitted to smoke.

CONCLUSION: Smoking restores a person's exhausted self-control resources.

IMPLICATION: The desire to gain willpower may contribute to a smoker's addiction. "Finding other ways to relax or enhance one's mood would be much healthier alternatives," suggests coauthor Thomas H. Brandon in a statement. "Smoking is obviously a maladaptive way to restore self-control."

SOURCE: The full study, "The Restorative Effects of Smoking Upon Self-Control Resources: A Negative Reinforcement Pathway," is published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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