Stubbing out all pleasure

November 10, 2000

It is difficult enough for smokers to give up their beloved weed but now, it seems, stubbing cigarettes out of their lives altogether may make it harder for them to get pleasure from anything else.

A series of psychological studies carried out by Jane Powell, reader in psychology, and her colleagues at Goldsmiths College, London, has revealed that smokers who abstain get less benefit from other rewards as well.

It seems the old technique of compensating for the loss of nicotine with another pleasure, such as eating sweets, is tougher in reality than in theory.

"It is a double whammy. They are giving up something they enjoy and also something that enables them to enjoy other things," said Powell.

The research suggests that nicotine withdrawal robs the smoker of pleasure motivation, making it harder to resist temptation.

Twenty-four smokers and 12 non-smokers were given a card-sorting task by Powell and Samir Al-Adawi. After several practice runs, the subjects were offered a financial incentive for fast sorting. While non-smokers and smokers who had just had a cigarette showed a significant increase in their ability to respond to this incentive, abstaining smokers did not.

In a third experiment, conducted with undergraduate Samantha Tait, the results of which have yet to be published, another group of smokers was shown words printed in different colours. The psychologists asked them to state the colours while ignoring the words.

They found that when smokers who had just had a cigarette came to words linked with pleasure and reward - such as "cuddle" and "love" - they were slower than when the words were neutral. The researchers believe this is because they were "tuned in" to cues of reward and had difficulty ignoring the meaning of such words.

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