Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Self-control is getting alot of attention these days, as managing emotions, behaviors and desires is integral to improving health behaviors and controlling stress.
But self-control is a resource that can be exhausted. And paradoxically, researchers are learning that for smokers, smoking can be a means by which they regain their sense of self-control.
In a new study, researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center exposed a test group and a control group — totaling 132 nicotine-dependent smokers — to an emotional video depicting environmental damage.
One group in the study expressed their natural emotional reactions (no depletion of self-control) while the second group suppressed their responses (self-control depletion).
Half of the participants in each group were subsequently allowed to smoke a cigarette. Everyone then was asked to complete a frustrating task that required self-control.
“Our goal was to study whether tobacco smoking affects an individual’s self-control resources,” said lead author Bryan W. Heckman, M.A.
“We hypothesized that participants who underwent a self-control depletion task would demonstrate less persistence on behavioral tasks requiring self-control as compared to those with self-control intact, when neither group was allowed to smoke.
“However, we also hypothesized that we would not find this performance decrement among participants who were permitted to smoke.”
Study results supported the benefits of smoking to restore self-control.
“We found that smoking did have a restorative effect on an individual’s depleted self-control resources,” said Heckman. “Moreover, smoking restored self-control, in part, by improving smokers’ positive mood.”
Investigators believe self-control is a limited resource that acts like a muscle — expending self-control on a task has the short-term effect of depleting the resource, making it more difficult to engage in another task that requires self-control.
While nicotine has been found to enhance performance on a variety of cognitive activities, such as motor abilities, attention and memory, this study was the first to evaluate the effects of smoking on self-control.
Study results suggest the desire to restore depleted self-control may contribute to a smoker’s addiction to tobacco.
“Smoking is obviously a maladaptive way to restore self-control,” said study co-author Thomas H. Brandon, Ph.D. “Finding other ways to relax or enhance one’s mood would be much healthier alternatives. In fact, even raising glucose level — perhaps by consuming a sugary drink — has been shown to restore self-control.”
Researchers believe learning alternative methods to restore self-control are essential for smokers wanting to quit or reduce their tobacco dependency.
The authors concluded that smoking cessation treatments would benefit by further research aimed at identifying how smoking restores self-control, as well as identifying additional alternative strategies for strengthening or restoring self-control.
The study is in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Source: Moffitt Cancer Center