No smoking signs may encourage smokers

No smoking signs may actually be encouraging people to smoke as they remind them of their need for cigarettes. The research, presented at the Society’s Annual Conference in Glasgow, found that smokers who were shown scenes with no smoking signs visible were subconsciously drawn to reach for a cigarette because the idea of smoking was put in their head.Researcher Brian Earp from Oxford University said this was part of an ironic effect that can happen 'when you couple information that people perceive with a negation’.

Earp explained: 'When I say "don't think of a pink elephant", I've just put the thought of a
pink elephant in your head. ‘A lot of public health messages are framed in a negative way -
say no to drugs, don't drink and drive, no smoking.’

During the research a group of smokers from New England were shown a number of
photographs. Half of the participants saw pictures which included a no smoking sign in the background or at the edge of the picture, while the other half saw the exact same images, but with the signs edited out. Then the smokers took part in a ‘joy stick test’ that assessed their reactions to different images. If the smokers were quicker to move the joystick away whilst looking at an image this indicated avoidance; a quicker movement pulling the joystick toward the participant indicated an automatic desire for the object in the image.

The researchers showed that participants who had earlier been shown no smoking signs were more drawn to smoking-related images such as ashtrays and cigarettes. Earp noted that this boost in craving occurred whether or not participants consciously noticed the signs.

'It's a significant effect which we think would have real life implications.’ Mr Earp
continued, 'What's interesting is the ironic effect of the negative image. No smoking signs
are meant to discourage an activity but what actually happens is you get a kick back so that
the very item that's supposed to be prohibited becomes more desirable.’

'My hunch is that having all this "don't do this" information out there may have ironic
consequences.'

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