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"Do smokers think about death differently?" Big Questions Online's Heather Wax turns a recent study into a question. The study, conducted by psychologist Jamie Arndt, cleverly examined if warnings on cigarette packages were likely to have any effect at all. Before asking people to smoke, he reminded them subtly of death or failure:

Arndt had ... student smokers complete questionnaires designed to induce either thoughts of their own mortality or thoughts about failing an exam. Then the researchers offered the students a cigarette and measured every person’s smoking intensity--each puff's volume, flow and duration.

Light smokers, unsurprisingly, smoked less enthusiastically after the reminder about mortality. But heavy smokers "reacted to thoughts of death by taking even harder drags on their cigarettes." In other words, as Arndt suggested, they may have reacted to mortality by trying to overpower it with nicotine—to "dispel a negative mood with an enjoyable activity." So those vivid, even gruesome reminders of death on some cigarette packs may have, for heavy smokers, the opposite of the intended effect. Why?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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