Tag Archives: Smoking

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”?

Why College Kids Always Be Smoking – It Isn’t Exactly Their Fault

Dr. Peter G. Stromberg, along with colleagues Drs. Mark and Mimi Nichter, conducted an ethnographic and qualitative study of college freshmen a few years ago, in an attempt to understand why so many college students transition to regular smoking during their time at school. They orchestrated a 16-month longitudinal (a type of observational study that looks at the same variables over long periods of time) interview study of early-phase tobacco users on two college campuses.  — He does not disclose which universities the study included, which I think is relevant information. Social attitudes vary wildly from university to university based on many factors, such as type of university (public, private, liberal arts, etc.) and location (UA’s values likely differ from UCLA). I would have liked more information concerning the students sampled. —

Stromberg begins by defining agency as “an understanding that the actions they (humans) initate and execute are linked to their projects, and that they understand other human beings in the same way.” He goes on to say, “agency is itself fundamentally a social strategy, a way to closely integrate individuals into cooperative projects.” He claims this sense of agency distinguishes humans from other primates. Psychologist Michael Tomasello says on the topic, “non-human primates are themselves intentional and causal beings, they just do not understand the world in intentional and causal terms.”

Lapses in agency, thus, are situations in which choices seem to be controlled by something beyond ourselves. This includes a range of things, from spiritual possession to drug-induced mania. He references dissociation as a similar and overlapping phenomenon in some cases.

Lapses in Agency in American Society

America’s relationship with lapses in agency is strained. Religious people often discredit these notions, as their faith is based on humans having free will. Stromberg writes that, “in American society, lapses in the sense of agency are typically the site of confusion, political conflict, and even illness. The point is not that lapses in the sense of agency are completely denied.” In American culture, there are, seemingly, no acceptable contexts for a lapse in agency.

Stromberg says of his study sample, “…as Americans – these young people are likely to have little awareness of the ways in which their actions are conditioned by social factors, and to consider most of what they do as a reflection of their own autonomous choices, they are likely to construe lapses of the sense of agency as being due to a mysterious power. Following culture-wide assumptions, they come to understand this power as the addictive potency of tobacco.”

Routines in Early Cigarette Use and the Social Character of Early-Phase Tobacco Use

Stromberg observes patterns in the routines of early-phase tobacco use among college students. The typical setting is at parties or other social gatherings. He states, “this conclusion is based on considerable evidence from interviews in which our subjects, who were only occasional smokers, repeatedly told us that they smoked mainly or exclusively at parties, while more established smokers spoke of smoking at parties or in informal gatherings of smokers.”

He lists three main categories of ideas and practices that are central to fostering this lapse of agency:

Imitation and Rhythmic Entrainment is the first among these. To put it simply, people have a desire to smoke when others do. One interview participant stated, “when you see someone else light a cigarette, you get this urge to do the same.” Others stated how difficult it was to refuse or quit while around people that are smoking. Stromberg asserts there are two reasons for this strong urge to imitate others. The first concerns the social history of smoking, In short, smoking used to be a symbol of status. Those who can handle a cigarette well were likely to be high class. Even when this notion dissipated, the attraction remained. He says of this, “the symbolic associations of cigarettes change more slowly than the structural situation of social mobility.” The rhythmic portion is a bit more difficult to understand, but essentially claims that humans wish to mimic rhythmic activity in groups. Stromberg says, “a rhythmic oral-manual activity such as cigarette smoking can to some extent provoke entrainment in the same way a musical rhythm does.”

Pretend Play is where the cigarette is “used as a prop in performances of pretending.” In this manner, smoking allows a person to role-play a new identity. It creates an alternative sense of environment and atmosphere. He claims it provides opportunities for creative improvisation, which can foster a lapse in agency. Overall, I found this section to be unclear and a seeming grasp at straws. I am not sure what he means, and from what I do gather, I don’t agree with its viability.

Emotional Arousal is the final category, in which people experience a heightened sense of excitement in social environments. Stromberg says this relates to a lapse in agency as, “this arousal is likely to be interpreted as coming from outside the individual, for in fact it is. And that interpretation, of course, lends further strength to the impression that forces are working to compromise one’s accustomed responsibility for one’s own mental states and actions.” In laymen’s terms, social gatherings provide an emotional intensity that creates a sort of “high”, that can in turn foster a lapse in agency.

Conclusively, Stromberg has argued that many college students transition to regular smoking due, in part, to lapses in agency, caused by hypersocial environments. In this way, he claims college students are not entirely responsible concerning their appetite for cigarettes. The wide range of effects they experience are not all chemical in origin, or related to tobacco itself, but can rather be attributed to the environments these activities take place in.