All posts by lmcguire

Using Cigarettes to Explore why Smart Students do Dumb Things

About the Author

Dr. Peter Stromberg received a BS and BA at Purdue and then received his PhD from Stanford in 1981. He completed post-doc fellowships in psychiatry and human development. He now teaches several Anthropology classes at the University of Tulsa. Although he seems like a charismatic guy, I’m not 100% sure why he got a chile pepper on Rate my Professor.

Subtle Ironies

He starts off the chapter by pointing out how ironic it seems that the smartest kids are the ones that go to college, but that they also allow themselves to pick up these self-destructive habits in college. I’d like to expand that even further—I know everyone has done things that are widely considered bad for you while in college. Whether it’s an all-nighter before a big test you procrastinated on, pizza and ramen on the same day, or drinking to the point of blacking out. All the “best and brightest” at our University can absolutely tell you these behaviors are unhealthy, yet they continue to engage.

As he describes it, these behaviors come from a “lapse in agency”, or losing yourself in the moment. He does a great job breaking apart that terminology, but as I imagine it, the lapse in agency comes at around 2 am during your all-nighter, or after that 7th drink at the party, or anytime you’re around your friends just giggling about things you know no one else would find funny. Agency itself is the concept that we have control of our actions and can therefore be responsible for them. He also mentions that we can recognize others as independent agents who have their own thoughts, feelings, and motives as well. This is what truly sets us apart from other mammals and allows us to have free will—we gossip about each other, set each other up on dates, and play messenger between parties. We have the social capacity to recognize how others may react to our actions and we have to claim responsibility for those actions. Other animals don’t have this ability, and it’s this social manipulation that develops over a lifetime that allows us to become independent agents.

Small Scale Mob Mentality

Once Stromberg sets up this definition and clarifies that it is unique to humans, he begins to explain how, as independent agents, we sometimes don’t understand why we make the decisions we do. One explanation for this is Durkheim’s collective effervescence. Originally used in spiritual and religious practices, this term is applicable to so many other social interactions, as Randall Collins has pointed out and Stromberg adapts for his purposes. A great example of this phenomenon is during football games. You may be shouting things you don’t even understand just because thousands of people around you are also shouting. You’re swept by the feelings and emotions of others so much that it impacts your decision-making and behavior. By making associations between your feelings, the place, and the collective emotions you may make associations with the sport itself. I don’t think he does an excellent job explaining the flow of logic here, but this is how I imagine it: Your emotions → the emotions of the people around you → your emotions → the objects associated with the event + your behavior → how you behave the next time you’re reminded of the situation/ object. To me, it seems like it mixes in classical conditioning, but the author never specifically mentions that. I guess another way to explain it would be that when you’re excited in a social situation, you become conditioned to act that way in similar future situations.

Young, Dumb, and Broke (Khalid)

Once Stromberg sets the scene for our behavior as individuals (and that we are aware how it affects the collective) and for collective behavior (becoming excited and transferring that behavior to future situations) he can start to unravel why the smartest young adults might make thoughtless decisions, like smoking cigarettes. He groups these reason into three categories—imitation and rhythmic entrainment, pretend play, and emotional arousal.

Sorry Not Sorry (Demi Lovato)

As seems obvious to any college student, the first explanation is a social one. All those times in elementary school when you were reminded, “just say no!” were actually for now. In this explanation, smoking follows the classical conditioning model I laid out above, that smoking becomes associated with the social situation. According to Stromberg’s study, the most social people tend to give in to smoking more often than those who do not place value on parties and social gatherings. Just like so many things in Western Culture, cigarettes can be seen as a status symbol. While originally smokers were separated into a higher class, in light of all the negative health ramifications smoking has been transferred to a lower social class. This is another interesting irony in smoking because very few in the lowest social classes can afford to go to college yet smoking still holds that stigma. He also asserts in this argument for social imitation that mirror neurons are at play. Mirror neurons are well established to play a large role in development while a child is learning how to do coordinated movements, but they may also be active later while young adults are learning new activities with social implications (such as smoking).

 

Cool Kids (Echosmith)

His next explanation includes something that I’ve never heard used to describe social situations after about 11-years-old: Pretend play (although I understand the concept continues throughout life, that terminology is typically used in describing children). As I understand it, because smoking is something most of these students would not normally do, they are playing the part of a much “cooler” version of themselves, imitating others they see as cool. A cigarette is just a prop in that game, much like my mom’s makeup was a prop when I pretended to be a princess when I was five. The lapse in agency occurs when students take on this new role and are no longer playing the part of their self, the rational being who knows smoking is bad. This also reminds me of the multiple selves theory, which states that there are actually three selves, a theater of consciousness, the narrator, and the public self, which would be the one who finds it more attractive to smoke in social situations.

Look What You Made Me Do (Taylor Swift)

The third explanation Stromberg gives is one of emotional arousal, which centralizes around Durkheim’s Collective Effervescence. Using mimicry and rhythmic entrainment the collective group involved in the social gathering will collectively feel an amplified emotional state. The agency then shifts from the individual to the group, who are all feeling highly emotionally aroused. This can also translate to a sort of amnesia, where memories become foggy. Through this loss of agency is another time when people may lose their ability to inhibit behaviors they normally would not take part in. By associating this state with smoking, first-year students are probably more likely to continue it into the future, they may seek this dissociated pleasure every time they smoke.

Questions for Conversation:

  1. Mirror neurons are usually studied using fMRIs. Using that, could we develop a procedure to see mirror neurons active in more intricate social situations such as smoking?
  2. Even though nicotine is highly addictive, Stromberg never actually mentions addiction, why do you think that is?
  3. Could smoking in this context be considered a behavioral addiction rather than a physical dependence?
  4. Do you agree with the assertion he made that college students find smoking to hold an “erotic prestige”?

Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Me, exploring the bald face of a mountain in South Carolina. I was on my way to my first backpacking trip with a friend. In the woods just the two of us for three days wasn’t easy, but we got an amazing spot for the solar eclipse this year!

Hi, I’m Lauren and I’m always trying to push my own limits. I’m a senior working towards a B.S. in Psychology with minors in music and philosophy with a mind and brain concentration. My whole life is dedicated to making myself uncomfortable, because that’s how we grow as people. In high school, I was really shy and awkward and trying to blend in as much as possible. Really nothing special and really ok with it. But one day my band director (the whole shy and awkward thing definitely lends itself to being a band nerd, trust me) bestowed on all of us some wisdom that I will abide by for the rest of my awkward and extraordinary life: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure he was talking about becoming a better soloist or something at least semi-music related– but that’s not how I heard it. It came at a time my senior year when I was deciding what college to go to– in-state or out-of-state, big school or small school, public or private. And I needed to hear something that would help me make this decision that I knew would help shape the rest of my life. Which brought me to The University of Alabama! And this mantra has been going through my head since I stepped foot onto campus back in August of 2014.

Me, circa 2013. Marching down Broadway in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Can you tell which one I am? Exactly.
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” –Alfred Watkins (above)

Mechanism

These words of wisdom grant me a cause to push myself. It’s the only way I’ve figured out to be my best self, to stay busy,  and to reach my full potential. There’s always more that I can do and I like to be able to prove that to myself. It probably comes from my competitive nature– I always like to “win”, and if winning is doing something different than I did yesterday then that’s cause enough for me to try it!

These uncomfortable behaviors produce stress in my system. Cortisol flows through my veins probably way more than the normal person; I’m sure my immune system has been compromised and my memory is getting worse by the minute. That’s why I’m constantly writing everything down and my planner is my most valuable possession. Source

 

Ontogeny

Pushing myself like this is definitely a learned behavior. It’s something I work towards every single day. Whether it’s pushing myself to set up a one on one meeting with a professor (which gives me incredible amounts of anxiety), starting an independent research project, or running for club president, I’m definitely not predisposed to do any of these things. But day after day I find myself pushing to make something happen.

I’ve learned to overcome the butterflies in my stomach before every lab meeting and test review. I’ve retrained myself to embrace the jitters that come along with submitting a research proposal. Some argue that this feeling is an evolutionary mechanism designed to make you run away. I’ve retrained myself to run towards it.

 

Adaptive Value

This behavior definitely has allllll kinds of adaptive value. I mean, I’m always adapting to the new adventures I throw myself into. Spring semester of freshman year I tried out to be a coxswain for the Alabama Crew Club. No big deal, right? anyone can sit in the back of a boat and steer it. WRONG. I was so wrong. When I showed up (at 5 am), expecting to be one of several people hoping to make the team. Turns out, I was trying out to be a coxswain of the men’s team. And crew=rowing (something I only had a slight idea of when I showed up). But I was there. I sat in the boat and steered it down and back up the river. And at the end of practice (the sun had just risen because it was still only 7 am) they told me to read up about what I was doing and they’d see me the following morning! I had to adapt to be more social, to gain confidence, and to fill a leadership role overnight. And I’m sure that increasing the males around me by 400% definitely has the chance to increase reproductive success, statistically at least.

Alabama Crew Club Men’s 8+ after winning bronze at a regatta in Gainesville, GA this spring.

Phylogeny

I don’t think this kind of behavior is an evolutionary trait– I think it’s a socially developed trait. Maybe there are some people who can push themselves naturally all the time (maybe they’re called extroverts?), but I am not like that. Maybe that truly is how some people get ahead and become CEOs or Senators or other models of “successful people”. But in my personal experience, this is a trait that derives from necessity, not from actual innate drive.

Me, standing in front of an Atlas V rocket just hours before launch. I got to watch this rocket launch the OSIRIS-REx payload into space. Ask me about it some time.
Although it might have been a “safe” start, freshman year I was in the Million Dollar Band to make new friends– here we are at the SEC Championship (2014)

It’s really strange to think about yourself in terms of evolutionary adaptations. As a psychology major with a focus on brain studies, it’s something I’ve never had to do before. It’s definitely beneficial to examine yourself in terms of how you go about daily life. As a psych major we’re always told things like, “now don’t try to analyze yourself in this way, you’ll just think you’re a psychopath!” and other ridiculous things about the parallels we may start to see in ourselves and our friends to the disorders we learn about in abnormal psych classes. I think this gives a really nice reflective perspective to how we see ourselves in the context of our classmates and in a broader context, too.