Addiction to tobacco and the risks that come with it are very real. Unfortunately, the addictive nature of tobacco use can make it one of the hardest bad habits to shake. Since there are physiological and psychological attributes of nicotine addiction, some people may not be able to quit or end up quitting and relapsing, even if they know it’s harmful. What if the hindrances to smoking cessation wasn’t just about willpower—and was more about how the brain processes numbers and percentages?
New research from Ohio State University has uncovered a connection between the probability that you’ll be able to quit smoking and the way you process mathematical probabilities. For this online study with 696 adult smokers, they first took a pre-study test which measured how literate they were with numbers to establish the level of their “numeracy.”
In the study, the consequences of smoking were placed on cigarette warning labels and shown to the participants four times along with images meant to deter smoking. The images of the consequences of smoking ranged from pictures of the physical damage on a lung to symbolic images of death. Beneath the pictures on the labels were statistical risk factors with facts about the damage smoking could cause and the differences in health between smokers and non-smokers with statements that included percentages.
The participants rated how these images made them feel and which ones were the most impactful. Then they answered questions designed to assess how much of the information they retained. Some took the test right after the online survey, and others took the test up to six weeks after the study. The test asked participants to relay what their risks were if they continued to smoking and if they had plans to quit smoking because of the information that was presented in the study.
Despite the shocking and graphic images that were shown on the labels, it was the statistics that made the biggest difference to the participants at their post-study questionnaire. The people that scored the highest on the numeracy test and had the best grasp of mathematics and probability remembered the most from the study and had the highest desire to quit smoking after the experiment.
The people in the study who were better with numbers were able to use statistics to make the risks more real to them and override their emotional desire to keep smoking. While this is great news for people who are quite literate with mathematics and numbers, it doesn’t assure a comprehensive approach for people who aren’t as number savvy. For those individuals, a picture is still worth a thousand words.
Shoots-Reinhard, B., Erford, B., Romer, D., Evans, A. T., Shoben, A., Klein, E. G., & Peters, E. (2020). Numeracy and memory for risk probabilities and risk outcomes depicted on cigarette warning labels. Health Psychology. Advance online publication.