The Psychology of Smoking  

Getting off cigarettes is tough, even with the patch. But staying off is even harder.

Most veteran smokers start up again, weeks, months or years after they are no longer chemically addicted to nicotine. Even Mark Twain could never figure out why.

University of California psychologist, R.D. Jansen has written a succinct e-book describing in non-technical language all the things we use smoking for, how it permeates our daily lives and what smoking means to us.

For example, did you know smoking was a mating display of genetic fitness? A kind of sign language?  An important part of talking to yourself and problem solving? A handy clock? He describes these and many other unconscious attitudes and hidden cognitive activities you may never have realized were even a part of the smoking experience.

These are the real reasons we start smoking again; and you can’t counteract them if you don’t know what they are, how they affect you, and when they are likely to hit—perhaps long after you think you have “quit”.  

With the valuable information in The Psychology of Smoking  you will have a fighting chance.   

(two excerpts follow)

Copyright 2003 by Robert D. Jansen, Ph.D.,

Excerpt one

Inhaling and exhaling tobacco smoke

There are many ways to inhale and exhale tobacco smoke. This fact may surprise non-smokers, who are likely to think that every puff is pretty much the same. This naive attitude is evident in design of the smoking machines that are used to determine nicotine and tar content. But the very fact that we have and use words like puff or drag or pull suggests a need to describe real differences. Of course, there are tricks that a few smokers can do with smoke, blowing smoke rings, for example, or re-inhaling from the mouth to the nostrils. But these have little to do with the normal activity of smoking.

The normal sequence

Smoke temperature during the lighting up process is liable to be high and can be painful if taken directly into the lungs. So we begin by generating small mouth vacuums using our cheeks and tongue, just sufficient to draw the flame into the tobacco and light it. Mouth-vacuum puffing (the sort of thing that President Clinton said he did with marijuana) is generally not thought of as inhaling at all since much less smoke gets into the lungs. Diaphragmic deep inhaling gets smoke into the lungs where the nicotine can be more easily absorbed. Because nicotine withdrawal is already beginning to nip at your heels, the first deep drag is for maximum drug dose. The fact that there is suddenly an inordinate amount of smoke to expel sometimes creates a slight social problem after the first deep drag: smokers must look for an unpopulated direction to blow. They often must toss their head up and to the side to avoid blowing smoke right into the face of their companions. If the smoker is with people he does not know well, a social apology is often felt necessary at this point, as the compulsive and inconvenient nature of the addiction is momentarily exposed, along with an embarrassing consumatory greed.

Because of the revealing nature of the first deep drag, the second drag is somewhat delayed. A smoker is now well dosed, and can afford to wait a bit to reupholster the illusion of volition. With the embarrassing urgency abated, the second drag is more subdued. Companions have reacted and been assessed, acceptable exhaling vectors found, and all that needs to be yet determined is ash disposal, which becomes a factor after the second drag. The third drag must be delayed if suitable disposal cannot be found, for three drags in a row will likely create a drop-off ash.

At this point, if an ashtray is not conspicuously available, the smoker becomes seriously distracted. He or she is, after all, holding a hot burning thing that cannot be put out easily. There are few desirable options, and the problem must be dealt with within a minute at the most---true drama in everyday living. When an ashtray is found, the first ash is tapped off, which is necessary at this point, and which also establishes a disposal path for further activity.

The third drag, and all subsequent drags except the last drag, are usually unconscious activities: with blow vectors and ash disposal determined there is just no need for conscious monitoring. In fact, smokers are rarely conscious of any but the very first drag, the one that releases them from withdrawal symptoms, and the last drag, which involves disposal of the remains. After smoking about 250,000 cigarettes, I cannot remember with any certainty how many drags were involved in smoking one of them. I believe this is simply because I was not conscious of much of the smoking experience. I would guess as little as five and as many as eight drags per cigarette, but I can't really remember even one cigarette all the way through.

Putting a cigarette out can be done a number of different ways, depending on ones mood and environment. In an ashtray, the usual method is stomping the butt down to extinguish the ember, possibly several times to get all fragments. Some smokers pinch the ember off to separate it from the filter. Other individuals stomp once and let it smoke out, and irritating practice at best, but quick. If one pays too much attention to the extinguishing process, one is reminded of the filth involved in smoking, and this is not desirable in consciousness. Also, a prolonged extinguishing process often results in ash-smeared fingers: if cigarettes do this to your fingers, what is being done to your mouth and lungs? Ashtrays with flip tops, or filled with pure white sand extinguish cigarettes effectively, but serve the much more important function of sparing the smoker from the dirtier side of smoking. Some smokers push their cigarette butt into their mashed potatoes or drop it into a half-filled drinking glass. While this may look disgusting, it reduces the time a smoker has to spend putting out the butt. Of course, flipping the butt into the water, into the street, or anywhere else, has the same advantage: less contact time with the filthy extinguishing process. Beer or soda cans with about an inch of fluid are almost the ideal disposal unit. Heavy smokers empty their ashtray often, for the same reason. There is nothing more repellant than twenty cigarette butts all in one place.

Ashes can be delivered to an ashtray several ways. Perhaps the most common disposal method is tapping: with cigarette held by thumb and middle finger, the body of the cigarette is tapped with the index finger. Exactly where the index finger taps is gradually moved closer to the filter end as the cigarette shortens. Flicking is another popular method, a somewhat more risky, since one has to aim the ash. The butt is held with thumb and index, and the middle finger is snapped into the body of the cigarette. A few smokers slowly push the ash off of the butt, making actual physical contact with the burnt-out part of the ash using their little finger. This method is more popular with cigar smokers.

Chain smokers sometimes take one or two drags, then set the burning cigarette in the ashtray to burn itself out. I can't help thinking that the meaningful psychological point with chain smokers is not so much to smoke cigarettes as it is to keep one available, and to keep a flame lit. Human cultures are full of vigil lights, Olympic torches, and "eternal" gravesite flames, possibly holdovers from the days when having a fire meant the difference between living or dying and tribes kept a fire "alive" because they did not yet know how to start one. You may have seen the remarkable film, Quest for Fire, which depicts a prehistorical tribe which looses its fire source. In any Catholic church, if the Holy Eucharist is present in the tabernacle, a small flame in the sacristy is kept lit.

Culturally, flames symbolize Passion and Life, and hot smoke from fragrant incense or burnt offerings, because it drifts upward naturally, was, and still is, used in most religions to propitiate the gods. The highest ground has always been the most powerful position for humans and so their gods were usually thought to be living on mountain tops or other defensible high positions from which they could survey and manage the world of mortals.

In fact, smoke is a likely physical model that may have given rise to the concepts of the soul or prayer, and combustion may have contributed to the idea of religious sacrifice. For most of human existence only with fire and smoke could one destroy large structures or lift visible substance great distances. Fire was thought to be one of the four elements by the ancients and before oxidation was understood, the transformation that fire created was seen as miraculous. Whatever is "consumed" by a fire is destroyed, but at the same time it is transformed into a diaphanous substance that can rise easily to the highest places. Cremating the dead transformed them and sent their smoky souls upward, perhaps to the abode of the gods.

Smoking clocks and the perception of time

I previously noted that Spanish land grants defined distances in cigarillos, the length of time it took a man to smoke a small cigar while riding a walking horse. Since they are manufactured to burn continuously and not go out, cigarettes work even better than cigars as time keepers or clocks. If they are not inhaled they can be burned as a fuse might be burned. Indeed, some arsonists have used cigarettes as a delayed fuse to start fires. One additional profane use of burning clocks: prostitutes have been reported to define the period of time they will spend with a customer by lighting a cigarette and letting it burn out in an ashtray.

Smoking sequences

The behavioral sequences involved in lighting and inhaling and extinguishing smokes have a grammar and syntax all their own, especially when they interact with the smoker's life circumstances.

Are you beginning a task? Open a fresh pack, empty and wash the ashtray, set the cigarettes out neatly with lighter on top, make a cup of coffee, pull up your socks, and you are ready to start. Tap a fresh cigarette carefully, dry your lip a little with your finger, and light up. Inhale deeply, feel the rush of sharp-mindedness, then assess the problem at hand carefully, gracefully holding the cigarette in front of you. Notice how patiently and confidently the smoke rises, no panic there, alive, burning, progressing, moving ahead inexorably. You are a sophisticated adult, you can do elegant, attractive things and you can solve this problem too. You can do it.

What to do first? Why, take another drag on your cigarette. That's always a good idea because it means you're moving right along with things. Cigarettes don't sleep, they just keep moving along, so we generalize that things are moving along. But the languid smoke moves gracefully so we do not feel rushed in any way. Slow and steady wins the race.

Are you stuck? "Gee, I thought sure that would work. Guess its back to the drawing boards. I wonder what's wrong?" I need to make a new effort, and beginning a new cigarette signals the beginning of things. I need to carefully analyze the situation. Lighting a smoke will provide an ambience of careful, patient, guaranteed progress. When I inhale deeply, I set my mind to win. I flex my gut, tense my diaphragm, I grit my teeth. I inhale sharply and exhale forcefully. I am being resolute, tough, Don't mess with me, you #%*& 's! I am taking a bite out of the problem, chewing it up and spiting it out. I have a fire in my belly and I am attacking. I am so hot. I am the Devil, still smoking from Hell, I am a dragon breathing fire. Smoking makes me formidable. When I smoke, I am silently roaring.

Are you taking a work break? "So much stress and tension! Enough! I have had it! I just want to get away for a while. Rest, and relaxation, please!" So I light a cigarette. And breathe deeply, letting go of the shallow chest stress tension, There, that's better already. I literally blow the tension away, exhale it, expel it, banish it from my body with the toxic smoke.

I escape into the ritual and social ceremony of smoking, into matches and lighters, and ashtrays and tapping ashes and removing small bits of tobacco from my mouth, the ritual of the normal sequence. I know I do not have to return until this cigarette has been smoked. Even though the clock is running, like a prisoner about to be shot by a firing squad I can delay the proceedings by smoking. I am safe, for now, for as long as I smoke. Smoking seems to keep stressful situations at bay. If there are other smokers on break, we share the ritual, we bum smokes from each other, share flames, and we flirt and gossip and make small talk, though we rarely speak of smoking itself. The ritual blocks out the time, controls it, organizes it, tames it, makes it predictable. When you smoke, you always know right where you are and where you are going and how long you have to get there. "The smoking lamp is lit: take five and smoke 'em if you got' em".

Making smokers walk a certain distance from public buildings to smoke together, sometimes in foul weather, just strengthens the interpersonal bonds, and heightens the ritual and ceremonial aspects of the smoking experience, which are quite rewarding in themselves. In general, "persecuting" any group generates more group cohesion within the victims. When we enact such legislation, we create ad hoc smoking support groups, where a smoker can meet all kinds of interesting and attractive fellow addicts.


Interesting? Do you agree? Does this jibe with your experience? There is much more.

     Click button to download the rest of The Psychology of Smoking. Now only $6.95


Excerpt 2

Clinical psychodynamics: Freud

About a century ago, Viennese physician, Sigmund Freud expanded the concept of psychological causation by discovering (critics would say inventing) the "unconscious" mind. Basically, he hypothesized that a person could have real and powerful "motivations" that he or she was not aware of "on a conscious level". In Freudian psychodynamics, a charged (cathected) memory can "cause" a behavior, motivate it, so to speak. He hypothesized that there are sources of "psychic energy" that motivate our actions and conscious thinking, much like boiler steam activates the arms of a steam engine. (Steam power was the dominant technology at the time Freud began writing. Psychological theories usually reflect and parallel the technology of the time. We are currently using computer-information procession models.) The existence of an unconscious mind made it possible for a person to be acting deterministically, even compulsively, but consciously feel they were making "free" choices. Freud further hypothesized that certain very early experiences influence our whole later life. For example, if a baby is weaned from the breast or bottle too early or has a difficult time teething, Freud speculated that he or she might spend inordinate amounts of time and energy in later life seeking oral satisfaction and comfort symbolically. Excessive eating, biting, putting things into your mouth, chewing on things, talking, and certainly smoking, qualify as so-called orally fixated behaviors in Freudian terms.

Everyone is also toilet trained, and this first frustrating attempt at self control influences later behavior. A child is rewarded for defecating or urinating on cue, and for being neat and clean about it. Thus, making a mess (soiling) or not making a mess in later life has symbolic meaning. Smoking, of course, involves expelling smoke, and making ashes, so-called anal behaviors.

Such symbolic fixations, called neurotic by neurologist Freud, can never really satisfy or extinguish our long-gone infantile frustrations, and thus are doomed to be repeated endlessly.

Freud, perhaps unwittingly, echoes and embodies many aspects of ancient Eastern philosophy, and his theories could well be called "old wine in new bottles". For example, the objective of psychotherapy, which Freud called psychoanalysis, is to bring these unconscious or pre-conscious early chakra-like fixations to a conscious level, a process of enlightenment that reduces or eliminates the wasted energy of neuroticism. Freud developed his psychoanalytic ideas from his classical educational background and from his own clinical experiences, but they were then, and are to this day, so intuitively appealing that most people assume his ideas have been scientifically tested and validated, which, for the most part, they have not. With minor exception, the psychic "structures" he hypothesizes, the id, the ego and the superego, and the all the various "defense mechanisms" of psychoanalysis remain attractive post-hoc descriptive models with little or no predictive utility.

Freud is supposed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", meaning that, at least in his dream analysis, cigars are not always a phallic symbol. In fact, Freud chain-smoked cigars, and died of cancer of the jaw and mouth. This may have been due in part to the fact that he was also addicted to cocaine. Cocaine, which was used as a dental anesthetic at that time, numbs the mouth and throat and this allows strong cigar smoke to be inhaled without triggering a gag reflex. Although he was a medical physician, and was chemically addicted to both nicotine and cocaine, (and probably caffeine as well) Freud still hypothesized that addiction was primarily a psychological (neurotic) activity, due to unconscious fixation at a certain infantile level of development.

Well, is there anything to this idea? Are addicted smokers "orally fixated"? Is that why they smoke? Can we say with any certainty that smokers had trouble teething or that they were weaned too early? Alas, to my knowledge, there have been no experimental or clinical controlled studies published that support, let alone confirm, this hypothesis, although uncontrolled clinical case studies and anecdotal reports abound. Rather like reading horoscopes, since virtually all smokers were weaned and teethed, they can all relate to orality in general. Whether oral behaviors are a cause or an effect of smoking, or merely co-exist with it, is the question. The best that clinical case studies can do is report if smoking patients have oral preferences and characteristics. However, to find that smokers have oral preferences is not proof of a relationship unless non-smokers do not have oral defense preferences.(It could just be that everybody has oral defense preferences, more or less.) And even if we can determine that only smokers really have oral characteristics, we still cannot say with any certainty if orality is causing the smoking. (It could be that something else is causing both smoking and oral fixation.) In the last analysis, whatever early life antecedents drug addictions may have, they soon develop a life of their own that overshadows those predispositions. Unless and until we have a way to identify and "prevent" or counteract oral fixation, whether or not it "causes" or predisposes a person toward later addictions like alcoholism or smoking is clinically irrelevant.

Whether one buys into the Freudian fixation hypothesis or not, the immediate solution is the same. For example, smokers often substitute eating hard candy for smoking. From the Freudian point of view, based on his ideas of "symptom substitution", smokers are expressing, attempting to satisfy, their inherent oral fixation (due to early weaning or a bad teething experience, etc) with either activity, smoking or nibbling candy. This idea has not been tested, but even if there is one fundamental cause for both activities, it would still make sense to choose the "symptomatic" behavior that causes the least damage. Although people often gain weight when they quit smoking, it is not necessarily from this sort of nibbling, and in any event, modest weight gain is, arguably, less damaging than tobacco addiction.

Perhaps the most useful notion we can glean from Freud's ideas of developmental fixation is that early experiences or frustrations can often heavily weight or even define what constitutes a reward or reinforcer for a person. This general hypothesis, a nice synthesis of behavioral and psychoanalytic theory, has been supported by recent research in cognitive psychology. Oral behaviors are performed by everyone but someone with intense early oral frustrations may find them more "rewarding" than someone without those frustrations. A smoker, when they put the nipple-like end of a cigarette into their mouths and suck, may be symbolically feeding at their mother's breast, which, in reality, may have been denied them when they were most impressionable. It is a mildly shocking but attractive hypothesis, as is most of Freud. Whether anything beyond titillation is gained by it, is the question, since Freudian theory does not predict the direction of the effect of early experiences, or rather, it predicts both directions. That is, deprivation can sometimes cause under-weighting and sometimes cause over-weighting, depending on how the person reacts to it. If they found the early deprivation too aversive and painful, they may avoid such activities in later life rather than seek them out. Freud seems not to have noticed that while this sort of "reaction formation" trick is useful to explain any possible clinical behavior after it has occurred, it makes the whole concept of early influence useless as a predictor.


Interesting? There is lots more. 

     Click button to download the rest of The Psychology of Smoking. Now only $6.95


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