Is Quitting Tobacco a “Burning Goal” for You?

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What is a “burning goal?” According to author, Walter Mischel, it is a long-term objective that can only be achieved with consistent, sometimes arduous work and attention.

If your answer is ‘yes,’ there is good news gleaned from an experiment conducted by Mr. Mischel in the mid-1960’s called the Marshmallow Test. Young children were placed in a room with a single marshmallow and instructed they could either eat the sweet treat right away or resist temptation and wait 10 minutes, at which time they would be given 2 marshmallows.

The children that succeeded in delaying gratification to achieve a longer term goal did so by occupying their attention with something else. Or by changing the mental image of their object of desire into something nasty. Subsequent studies with adults show that this strategy carries over to adulthood. Adults do better resisting temptation when they use methods of distraction or distancing.

Mr. Mischel himself was able to quit smoking only when he began to associate cigarettes with a very specific image of an X-ray of a man’s cancer-ridden lungs, as reported by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker. Mr. Mischel recalls, “I changed the objective value of the cigarette. It went from something I craved to something disgusting.” Establishing routines that reinforce good behavior also can help people avoid temptation in the first place.

Anna Altman notes in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that like-minded writers believe that the key is to counter something that is emotionally “hot” — desire, temptation, emotion — with something “cool” — the brain’s executive function. Reminding yourself of all the negative effects of smoking, rather than savoring the experience in the present, requires the rational part of your mind (the prefrontal cortex) to override your physical desires (the limbic system).

A counter perspective is provided by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. He posits that learning to deal with impulses isn’t so much about building up self-control as it is about training yourself to appeal to certain emotions. Or in other words to tap into the correct “hot” response rather than countering “hot” with “cool.” Mr. DeSteno argues that emotions that have a moral imperative and value a greater social good — responses like gratitude, compassion, and pride — can help us control our behavior in favor of a delayed payoff. In a smoker’s case, the emotional payoffs include greater self-esteem, less guilt, no longer exposing those around us to our toxic fumes, etc.

John Tierney wrote in a 2011 piece for the New York Times magazine that decision-making can be exhausting and we have a finite amount of energy for making choices in a given time period. Even small decisions like what to have for breakfast can wear down our will power. Will power is defined by Mr. Mischel as the ability to use the brain’s executive, rational functions to overcome the immediacy and emotional potency of desire.

An emotional response might even be more effective and less draining in helping you resist temptation, especially over the long term, says Ms Altman. Any addict will confirm that our executive function can be used to twist any decision to our advantage: “I deserve a cigarette right now because it’s been a tough day. I had a fight with my spouse/boss/best friend. I am lonely, bored or depressed. I am going to die anyway so why not from smoking?

Ms. Altman concludes that for this reason, “any strategy based solely on forcing adherence to a set of virtues through a bunch of cool-headed, cognitive strategies and a list of ‘thou shall nots’ is a fragile one.”

Whether you espouse responding rationally or emotionally to the desire to smoke, the bottom line is the same. You can change the auto-pilot reaction of reaching for tobacco at life’s every turn if stopping smoking/chewing is a burning goal for you. If you are willing to put in the work over a consistent period of time; to change the nature of your relationship to tobacco; to regard it as something destructive that has been sold to you by greedy, sociopathic corporations instead of something you “cannot live without;” to change your mind and routines and put new mindsets and routines in their place, you CAN fulfill this burning goal.

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