Math-Savvy Smokers More Likely to Want to Quit
A new study shows that smokers who score higher on tests of math ability are more likely than others to say they intend to quit smoking.
According to the findings, this is because smokers skilled in math have a better memory for numbers related to smoking risk, which ultimately leads to a greater intention to quit.
“People who had better math skills remembered more of the scary numbers about smoking risks that we gave them, and that made a difference,” said Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, lead author of the study and research assistant professor in psychology at Ohio State University.
The study, published online recently in the journal Health Psychology, is one of the first to link numeracy — the ability to work with math — with smoking.
“These results may help explain why many studies find that smokers who are more educated are more likely to successfully quit,” she said.
The study involved 696 adult smokers in the United States who participated online. At the beginning of the session, participants were given a short, standardized test measuring numeracy. Then they were shown eight different cigarette warning labels, four times each. The warning labels had various images, such as a cartoon gravestone or a photo of a damaged lung.
Each label also included a text warning (such as “Smoking can kill you”) paired with risk probability information for smokers and non-smokers. For example, “75.4 percent of smokers will die before the age of 85, compared to 53.7 percent of non-smokers.”
At various points, participants were asked to rate their emotional reactions to each label, the credibility of each label and the personal relevance of each label.
Either immediately after the experiment or six weeks later, the volunteers answered a variety of questions designed to see how much they remembered of the risk information they were given. They were also asked questions assessing their perception of how high their risk was related to smoking and to rate how likely they thought they were to quit smoking in the next 30 days or the next year.
Although it wasn’t the focus of the study, the results confirm previous research suggesting that memory for high-emotion warning labels (those that had graphic images like a diseased lung) was lower immediately after the experiment than memory for the low-emotion warning labels (those with graphics like the cartoon gravestone).
However, memory for the graphic labels declined less for those tested six weeks later than for those shown the less graphic images.
But beyond the impact of the images, respondents who scored higher in numeracy were more likely to have better memory for the risks involved in smoking, including the statistics. And this was associated with greater risk perceptions and intentions to quit.
The findings suggest that health officials and policymakers should evaluate how they present risk information to smokers, Shoots-Reinhard said.
“Smokers who are less numerate tend to have a very superficial knowledge about the health risks of their habit,” she said. “What we saw here is that people who better understood numbers had a better understanding of the risks. We need to find a way to communicate that to people who aren’t as numerate.”
Shoots-Reinhard recommends the use of simple infographics and similar devices to help less numerate smokers better grasp the risks.
“We want people to understand the risk information in order to make more informed decisions. Our results suggest that may help them make the decision to quit,” she said.
Source: Ohio State University
Pedersen, T. (2020). Math-Savvy Smokers More Likely to Want to Quit. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/23/math-savvy-smokers-more-likely-to-want-to-quit/157575.html