Gruesome anti-smoking messages: do they really deter smoking?


Starting in 2012, cigarette packs in the United States will carry new warning labels that show some rather gruesome depictions of the consequences of smoking. I would have thought this would be a deterrent to smoking. But research suggests that might not be the case, writes Sara Reardon for Science Insider.

Science Insider asked Tavris what the current research in behavioral psychology has to say about the effectiveness of fear imagery.

"'Current' research?" she replied in an e-mail. "Social psychologists have decades of research showing that fear communications generally backfire, that people tune them out, and therefore that these tactics are generally not effective."

Tavris cites the Department of Homeland Security's post-9-11 terror alert system as an example of warning that became a joke to many Americans. While the system certainly raised awareness, it didn't couple that awareness with any action a person could take to protect himself. "To be effective, the fear message must be combined with an immediate action the person can do to alleviate the fear," she says. "So what are people going to do with these new feelings of anxiety and fear? To calm yourself, you think, 'What a stupid code.' "

The new FDA labels do suggest an action: stop smoking. But as any smoker can attest, this is far more easily said than done. Counterintuitively, Tavris says, smokers who want to quit but have failed are actually the group who are most likely to make a joke out of the new labels. The behavioral phenomenon at play is called cognitive dissonance: a clash between two conflicting beliefs. One way to resolve the tension is to override the disturbing new message.

I think there's good reason for the government to take steps to dissuade people from smoking. But, from this perspective, it sounds like the new labels might not be the best way to achieve that goal.

Via Noah Gray