All posts by Shannon Sproston

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.


Video Games Enhance Cognition

While I’ve found nothing that compares video game styles cross-culturally, there has been a recent surge of research concerning Western action games and their influence on cognitive and perceptual function.

Here’s an article detailing video game training for adults. Video gaming can potentially be rehabilitative.

If you have no idea what the differences are between Japanese and American games, this interview can give you an idea

Notes from a Cinephile

Humans have always held a fascination with storytelling. The form has evolved from spoken legends, hieroglyphs, and cave drawings, to those born of recent technology, such as films, comic books, and even video games. It is something that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and the list of benefits is long. Though, I don’t think I can convey its capacity for influence better than this scene from Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Australian Peter Weir). I’ve been interested in films for many years. My passion flourished when I began college, and was further realized when I was appointed Director of the International Film Series at the University of Northern Colorado. It was a paid job, but I would have done it for free. We used 35mm film (which is not cheap), and ran it through a projector from the 50’s. It did require occasional troubleshooting, but the history and novelty made it worthwhile. It was, too, a laborious process, as it takes great care and precision to run through a projector – at least one as old as ours was. If you’ve never seen a canister of 35mm film, you should know that they are awfully heavy, and film reels can be up to thousands of feet long. The best part of the job was having a key to the theater. I was never explicitly told not to watch films for my own enjoyment in the theater, so I definitely did that. One of my favorite films, Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, was available on Amazon to rent before it was released in the US. I certainly didn’t want to pay $10 to watch it on my laptop, so I ran it through the computer in the theater, and I watched it on the big screen. Watching films by myself in the theater became a regular occurrence. I even watched some of my weekly TV shows, such as Shameless, in there. Again, best job ever. (Funny anecdote – As I had grown comfortable doing this, I would smoke an inordinate amount of pot before heading to the theater. The DVD player software on the computer set up in the theater has a playback feature that allows you to slow or speed up the rate of play. If done in small increments, it is unnoticeable. I began watching The Turin Horse, which is a slow-paced art film, and I, apparently, hit the button to slow the playback speed by mistake. It took me 45 minutes to realize what I had done. I was like, “Jesus, nothing is happening…” It turns out, in that 45 minutes, I had played through about 15 minutes of the whole film. Don’t get high and operate machinery.)

Lindou Theatre at the University of Northern Colorado
Lindou Theatre at the University of Northern Colorado

Through the years, I discovered that movies can be much more than cheap entertainment (and that America hasn’t fully realized this yet). I grew to love the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Ingmar Bergman above all others. These two are master craftsmen, and I beg you all to familiarize with their work. Jeunet is a French film director, who you likely know, but don’t know you know, from the movie Amelie. Though, in my opinion, not his best, it is his most well-known. Ingmar Bergman is a golden god, lauded as one of the greatest directors and auteurs by many others in the field. His films usually deal with heavy topics, and display the human condition in a way no other has been able to. This particular scene has long haunted me.

I got crafty and made a coaster set with images from Jeunet and Bergman films.
I got crafty and made a coaster set with images from Jeunet and Bergman films.

Movies assist in development as well. My generation was that of the animated Disney musicals, which instilled in us many cultural traits. It was our introduction to heroism, revenge, and even death. It was not uncommon for a child to be introduced to mortality via the passing of Mufasa in the Lion King, or to the consequences of untruthfulness in Aladdin. I would argue, though, that children are not the only ones capable of gleaning truths from films. People learn through witnessing cause and effect in stories, and films place you in roles you might not otherwise realize. This is what makes films from all over the world especially valuable. Some illustrate universal truths, while others reveal situations and cultural perspectives that have the ability to enlighten the viewer. This came out more like a public service announcement than I intended, but I think I adequately answered Tinbergen’s questions, if in a roundabout way.