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”?

14 thoughts on “Using Cigarettes to Explore why Smart Students do Dumb Things”

  1. To answer your question about whether smoking is considered a behavioral addiction or a physical dependence, I think it’s both. I think that physically it is highly addictive because of the pharmacological effects of nicotine on the brain. Because of the nicotine high, people continue using it. I also think it is behaviorally addicting because it is socially addicting. Similar to what Lende was saying, drug addicts have strong social bonds with those who they interact with socially on a regular basis. So, despite any tolerance to nicotine, the social interactions associated with smoking are also rewarding and serve to maintain the habit or addiction.

  2. I recall one of my professors in psychology getting very upset when another student brought up mirror neurons because she said that there was no actual evidence that they exist in humans. I’m curious, are others aware of this controversy?

  3. While the focus on theoretical perspectives that are not generally applied to addiction is kind of novel, the lack of mention of the neurological processes as they relate to the collective effervescence or play theory makes it fall a little flat. I also wonder when this research was done, and whether it still holds true today.

    1. I enjoyed the discussion on mirror neurons in class… it’s something that I’ve heard about a lot but haven’t fully understood. I see why they are such an exciting area of research, and it seems like using technology to show mirror neurons firing could have some really interesting implications in terms of field testing anthropological theories.

  4. I enjoyed this chapter quite a bit. While reading it, I was thinking about how it relates to the ever growing claim (backed by the medical community) that addiction is a disease. I wonder how people would feel about this idea that people are losing their sense of agency because of social situations rather than it all coming from physical dependence and various biological factors. Could the idea of “disease” be seen as a cause for loss of agency as well? I also thought this article was very much coming from an “etic” approach. It reads almost like “you do not actually know why you’re doing this but I do.” Which may or may not cause some negative reactions from some people.

    1. I do think that seeing addiction as a disease is sort of a loss of some agency because it’s, like you said, seen as you don’t actually know why you’re doing this but you’re doing it. That comment specifically reminds me of Lende’s article and the part about how activation shifts from the ventral striatum to the dorsal striatum where the behavior is just maintained and reinforced. So to some extent I do think that the habit is neurologically mediated and at some point in time, your brain doesn’t necessarily appraise the behavior but is rather locked into that habit and resistant to change.

    2. In class we discussed whether smoking and its image among people today. I really enjoyed that discussion because it is incredibly interesting to see the impacts of different programs like DARE, and I am not saying they are positive. The idea that smoking used to be seen as something high class people did is simply not seen today. Smoking really has become viewed as an activity practiced by generally the lower class. I personally do not view smoking as cool and my freshman year I had joined an organization that a lot of people smoked in. I was constantly surrounded by people smoking but it never crossed my mind to take a cigarette from one of them. This really just comes from my personal experiences with family members struggling with cigarette addiction. It just really interests me to think about the variety of reasons people choose to smoke and the experiences that led them to make the decision.

  5. Relating to your question about whether smoking in this article could be considered a behavioral addiction rather than a physical dependence, I agree with this. I know a lot of people that smoke because they like to smoke and I also know people who only smoke when they’re out at parties and smoke with other people at parties. I think that the people who only smoke at parties have started to associate smoking with how they feel when they’re out with their friends and having a good time. Whereas people who smoke because they like the nicotine do have a dependence on the nicotine. I know less college students who smoke to feed a dependence because they do know the effects of long term smoking. Almost all of the people that are in college that smoke have no plans to smoke outside of social events or after they leave college.

  6. The “Just Say No” model implemented in the 1980’s by 1 Nancy Reagan was used by one of my professors early on as an example of the fundamental attribution error. That is to say, not putting enough emphasis on the environmental and personal factors of an individual that would make them not say “no” in the first place. Super 1980s (my professor and the notion of “just say no” anyway), but kind of a super valuable lesson in how things do not work sometimes, and why.

  7. I think there is a still a heavy controversy surrounding mirror neurons, so I’m not surprised that Mandy’s professor reacted that way. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with it, but Gregory Hickok wrote a pretty popular book The Myth of Mirror Neurons that pointed out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Mirror Neuron topic. I think the main argument for the skeptics’ side is that, aside from one study where electrodes were attached directly to the human brain (an epileptic study), all other studies have generally used fMRI. Therefore, evidence exists that suggest mirror neurons in humans but they have yet to prove these individual neurons exist outside of monkeys. Again, that could just be due to research limitations in humans.

  8. I did more research on the mirror neuron controversy and I think the big thing that encouraged critics to push back was the initial hype of all of it. The guy who popularized the theory, Ramachandran, said, “mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology.” That’s kind of a heavy statement. Initially, it was thought that mirror neurons alone were responsible for imitation, but that seemed unlikely as macaques monkeys have mirror neurons but do not display mimicry. It was also theorized that the ability to mimic actions is necessary to understand other’s actions. However, some human patients with brain damage who are unable to perform tasks are still able to the meaning of that same task when it is done by someone else.
    Another popular theory that was widely criticised was the “broken mirror” theory dealing with autism. After recent studies, it seems highly unlikely that defects in mirror neurons or that part of the brain are a component of autism.
    I think most people now agree that they have a role in behaviour and social interaction but not to the extent it was originally thought to be.

    There are two good websites that break this down: one is a blog post on the Harvard Arts and Science grad school page and the other was done by the American Psych Association.

  9. We talked about the idea of ‘erotic prestige’ during this discussion. I do still think that there is erotic prestige and rhythmic entrainment when it comes to social smoking. In my previous post I mentioned my friends who smoke when their out partying but don’t smoke in any other context. I think that they hold this idea of how they look when they’re out smoking at a party while their swaying to the music in the corner. While we may not see it and understand, I think that to some there is an appeal in that action. I also think that there is rhythmic entrainment because when you’re a social smoker, you have to learn how to alternate smoking and talking. You learn how to hold your face and your arms while you’re smoking by watching your friends do it. Eventually you begin a rhythm of how often you take a puff and exhale and respond in conversation.

  10. I wouldn’t say smoking inherently holds an “erotic prestige” for all college students. I know that myself and most of my college-aged friends do not enjoy or have never tried smoking, nor do I ever plan to, and quite frankly we just don’t see the appeal. That’s not to say, however, that it isn’t seen like that for some people. I feel like it depends on the people and the situation. I know some students that I have never seen smoke outside of social situations, suggesting that maybe for them it is about looking “cool” or even just following the crowd. But I know that there are people like my stepmom who only smoke alone or when they are on their own property because they may be ashamed of it but are unfortunately addicted. I would be interested to see more research about the mirror neurons possibly in another context or elaborated on in regards to addiction. In response to your question about it being a behavioral or physical addiction, I would say both. Physical, in that cigarettes contain an addictive substance, nicotine; and behavioral, in that for some people it is addicting in social settings.

  11. Our lecture made me consider a lot of things about addiction. For one, the idea of mirror neurons highly interests me. The concept is fairly intuitive- if you observe an interaction, similar neurons fire in your own brain. I wonder how many degrees of separation this process can take before the neurons stop firing, or if they do at all.

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