A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Vol. 121, No.1) reveals that researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, have discovered that smoking a cigarette may restore self-control after it has been depleted.

The researchers recruited a total of 132 nicotine dependent smokers, who were split into two groups, a test group and a control group. The participants were asked to view an emotional video that shows environmental damage. One group in the study expressed their natural emotional reactions, i.e. no depletion of self-control, whilst the second group suppressed their responses, i.e. self-control depletion. The researchers then allowed half of the participants in each group to smoke a cigarette before asking all participants to complete a frustrating task that required self-control.

Leading researcher, Bryan W. Heckman, M.A., a graduate student at the Moffitt Tobacco Research and Intervention Program and the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida explains:

“Our goal was to study whether tobacco smoking affects an individual’s self-control resources. 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.”

The results confirmed the researchers’ speculations.

Heckman states:

“We found that smoking did have a restorative effect on an individual’s depleted self-control resources. Moreover, smoking restored self-control, in part, by improving smokers’ positive mood.”

The authors say that evidence is increasing with regard to demonstrating that self-control is a limited resource that acts similar to a muscle. For instance, having to use self-control on a task leads to a short-term effect of depleted resources, which increases the difficulty to perform another task that requires self-control.

Previous studies have established that nicotine enhances the performance of various cognitive activities, like motor abilities, attention and memory. However, this is the first study that evaluates the effects of smoking on self-control. This study indicates that the desire to restore depleted self-control may contribute to smokers’ addiction to tobacco.

Study co-author Thomas H. Brandon, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center, and psychology professor at USF comments:

“Smoking is obviously a maladaptive way to restore self-control. 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.”

The findings suggest that smokers who want to quit could benefit from learning alternative self-control restoration strategies to reduce their tobacco dependency. The researchers conclude that it would be beneficial for smoking cessation treatments if further research is conducted that targets the methods in which smoking restores self-control, and to identify additional alternative strategies that strengthen or restore self-control.

Written by Petra Rattue