In 1863, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “Try to set yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear – and you will see that the cursed thing will come to your mind every minute.”

According to a recent experiment conducted by me and my colleagues, Dostoevsky’s observation on ironic thought processes may have implications for public health for smoking bans.

Our research suggests that smokers may be more motivated to grab a cigarette when they encounter a representation of one in an image – even if it has a red line through it. Walking past one of these familiar icons can cause cravings for cigarettes, whether the sign is consciously noticed or not.

Priming – not just smoke and mirrors

Objects, words and symbols in the everyday environment can influence people’s thinking and behavior, even if it is often outside of conscious awareness. This is called “subconscious priming” and decades of research have shown that it is a real and pervasive part of our daily experience.

Rain outside a window, even if it is not consciously noticed, can make people feel that their gloomy mood must stem from dissatisfaction with life in general; the presence of a briefcase in the room can promote economic drive; holding a hot cup of coffee makes people more likely to trust a stranger; and to scrub your hands can wash away moral guilt.

Even when people consciously notice certain messages, if they are negatively framed – as with the “no” in non-smoking – the brain tends to unconsciously discount the denial. Freud noticed this in 1925 when he remarked, “We never discover a ‘no’ in the unconscious.”

A smoking gun

Our new finding stems from an experiment conducted at Yale University in 2010 in which a sample of smokers was randomly assigned to two groups. The first group looked at a stream of photos depicting everyday scenes and places: a sidewalk cafe, an airport lounge, a playground, and so on.

A subset of these images included a smoke-forbidden sign placed in an inconspicuous place in the image (for example, above a door frame, or on a table). The second group (the control group) viewed the same images with the smoking ban signs digitally removed.

Participants were first asked to judge whether a professional or an amateur photographer took each photo. It was designed as a distraction task to grab participant’s attention so that exposure to the smoking ban signs was truly passive and casual – as it is in real life.

After the smokers viewed the stream of photos, they participated in a “joystick” motivation task. In this task, the participants were shown a series of objects on a computer screen and told to knock it off the screen by moving the joystick as fast as possible. The objects shown were everyday items (a soccer ball, a pencil, a tin can) mixed with some smoke-related objects (a lit cigarette, an ashtray).

Accidental observation of a no-smoking sign may be enough to tip the scales when a smoker decides whether or not to light a fire. US Air Force Airman 1st Class Brittany Perry / Flickr

Previous research suggests that when people move their hand to an object in a certain way, the brain treats this movement as a gesture of avoidance. In a joystick or leverage paradigm, people are generally quicker to move the lever (and consequently their hand) toward objects they are motivated to avoid, as if pushing them away.

Moving a lever toward the body, on the other hand, is treated as a “pull to” motion – a “closer” gesture, as if trying to pull the object closer to you. Given these motivational orientations, when participants are instructed to move a lever in the “push away” direction, they are quicker to execute the movement when they are shown an image of something they want to avoid, such as a snake . But they are slower to perform the movement when a desired object, such as an ice cream cone, is displayed. When instructed to move the lever toward the body, this instinct is reversed.

By instructing participants in our smoking study to move the lever first to one side and then the other, while watching the flow of objects, split-second differences in reaction times for the different stimuli could be recorded. A score indicating the extent to which participants were motivated to approach or avoid each item is then generated.

This method allowed us to determine levels of motivation to reach or reject the objects we displayed without participants knowing what was being measured. The finding? Accidental exposure to smoking cessation signs has dramatically increased the rate of cigarette approach movements in smokers, all beyond participant awareness.

Inflammatory debate

Researchers must then evaluate how this subconscious effect manifests itself in the lives of smokers. Although not every smoker who casually observes a no-smoking sign will be asked to grab a pack of cigarettes, even a slight influence on behavior may be enough to change the balance when the individual between one action and a other decision.

Although it is only a small step to evaluate the impact of smoking cessation signs, this research should encourage public health advocates and policymakers to further investigate their nameplate strategy. As more studies are done in this area, we may discover that plastering a city with thousands of bright red “craving reminders” may not be the most effective way to combat smoking.

Acknowledgment: This article was adapted from a research report written by the author of The Oxonian Globalist, a student journal at the University of Oxford.