Who are you without that cigarette?

November 14, 2017, Leiden University
Cover of  Eline Meijer's dissertation, 'This is (not) who I am: Understanding identity in continued smoking and smoking cessation.' Credit: Leiden University

Do you want to be successful at stopping smoking? If so, the main thing is that you should see yourself as a non-smoker. Psychologist Eline Meijer has discovered that smokers who are unable to do this are more likely to resume smoking. This is more common among smokers from a lower socio-economic background. PhD defence 14 November.

"People like to behave in a way that fits their identity," Meijer explains. "For some smokers, smoking is an important part of who they are - smoking fits with how they see themselves - while other people see themselves as non-smokers. It is the smokers who can see themselves as non-smokers who will be more likely to stop. The new identity as a non-smoker is actually a "future self," and we know that a clear image of the "future self" can have a positive effect as a stimulus for changing behaviour."

We have known for decades that smoking damages the health. So, why do people continue to smoke, or why do their attempts at stopping smoking fail? Research has already been conducted on people's identity as a smoker, but research on the identity of a non-smoker is new. Why is it that you see yourself in a particular way? How does that influence your behaviour? How does your identity change when you change your behaviour? Meijer explains: "My research shows that a person's identity as a smoker or non-smoker can change over time. On average, smokers see themselves increasingly as smokers, while ex-smokers see themselves less and less as smokers."

But stopping smoking does not necessarily have to result in a change of identity, Meijer has found. Ex-smokers have a greater chance of reverting to smoking if they continue to regard themselves as smokers, while ex-smokers who see themselves increasingly as non-smokers are more successful at quitting. "It's particularly important that they have the feeling they are still the same person even when changing their and their identity. Or maybe they become even more themselves."

Meijer combined several different research methods in her PhD. In a small-scale study, ten people who wanted to stop smoking were interviewed over a period of three months. The researchers extracted data from an existing large-scale, six-year study on the identity of smokers and stoppers. Meijer: "The big advantage of this large dataset was that we were able to monitor people over a long period of time. We were able to examine whether, and if so how, their identity changes, and whether there are differences in terms of socio-economic status." The researchers also used questionnaires, and checked a year later whether or not the smokers had quit. The results all point in the same direction. People with a lower level of education have more difficulty adopting a non-smoker identity. They have a much stronger image of themselves as smokers.

According to Meijer, health psychology should pay more attention to because it can be an important predictor of behaviour. "I hope that this research will lead to more smokers being able to quit. We can use this research to develop treatments or interventions that will help smokers start to see themselves as non-smokers, and hopefully they will then be more successful at stopping smoking."

As an experiment within the PhD research, smokers imagined themselves as their 'future selves'—as somebody who has stopped smoking—in the form of a writing assignment. In follow-up research Meijer also wants to give participants tasks with visual images. She is looking for who want to stop and who are willing to take part in her research. If you want to take part, please mail Eline Meijer: e.meijer@lumc.nl

Explore further: Time off for good behaviour: Japan firm rewards non-smokers

Related Stories

Time off for good behaviour: Japan firm rewards non-smokers

November 1, 2017
Non-smoking employees at one Japanese firm are getting six additional days' holiday to compensate for the time their colleagues spend puffing away at work.

Study finds plain packaging helps smokers quit

March 2, 2017
Plain tobacco packaging in Australia reduced smoking and increased smoker attempts to quit the habit because it led to a fall in the way they identified with their brand, a study led by ANU has found.

Researchers find partner support is key to stubbing out smoking

March 9, 2016
Support from a partner after the quit date and refraining from nagging are important factors in successfully stopping smoking, according to a researcher at the University of Aberdeen.

Young social smokers more likely to become adult daily smokers

August 6, 2015
Young people who have a cigarette occasionally—even just at weekends— have almost four times the odds of becoming a daily smoker by their late 30s compared to their non-smoking peers, according to new University of Otago ...

Smokers with depression try to quit more often but find it harder

February 18, 2016
People diagnosed with depression are about twice as likely to smoke as the general population. A survey of 6811 participants from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the USA, published today in the scientific journal ...

Obese smokers tend to put on more weight after quitting

September 7, 2015
(HealthDay)—Heavy smokers and those who are obese gain more weight after quitting smoking, a new study finds.

Recommended for you

Emotional abuse may be linked with menopause misery

November 19, 2018
Smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have long been linked to heightened symptoms of menopause. Now, a study headed by UC San Francisco has identified another factor that may add to menopause torment: an emotionally ...

How AI could help veterinarians code their notes

November 19, 2018
A team led by scientists at the School of Medicine has developed an algorithm that can read the typed-out notes from veterinarians and predict specific diseases that the animal may have.

Bullying and violence at work increases the risk of cardiovascular disease

November 19, 2018
People who are bullied at work or experience violence at work are at higher risk of heart and brain blood vessel problems, including heart attacks and stroke, according to the largest prospective study to investigate the ...

A low-gluten, high-fiber diet may be healthier than gluten-free

November 16, 2018
When healthy people eat a low-gluten and fibre-rich diet compared with a high-gluten diet, they experience less intestinal discomfort including less bloating. Researchers at University of Copenhagen show that this is due ...

Youth dating violence shaped by parents' conflict-handling views, study finds

November 16, 2018
Parents who talk to their children about nonviolent ways of resolving conflict may reduce children's likelihood of physically or psychologically abusing their dating partners later—even when parents give contradictory messages ...

Why we shouldn't like coffee, but we do

November 15, 2018
Why do we like the bitter taste of coffee? Bitterness evolved as a natural warning system to protect the body from harmful substances. By evolutionary logic, we should want to spit it out.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.