Tag Archives: social gatherings

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”?