If You Want to Quit Smoking, You Have to Know About Associative Learning

Articles by R. Michael Stone, M.S. - Counselor

 

As I have discussed in other articles, the driving force behind smoking is not the cigarette/nicotine. The thing that keeps a person smoking is the Psychological Smoking Mechanism. The foundation for this mechanism is consciously laid by the beginning smoker at an early age. However, it is strengthened over the years by Associative Learning. In this article, I will explain how the smoker uses Associative Learning to reinforce the Psychological Smoking Mechanism which in turn, makes it hard to quit smoking.


The History of Associative Learning
 
The concept of Associative Learning was discovered by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. He started out researching the gastric function of dogs but in examining salivary secretion, he discovered that saliva flowed before food was presented. Finding this more interesting, he gave up the gastric research and explored this phenomena. He found that he could trigger a physical response, e.g. flow of saliva, by pairing a neutral stimulus with the active stimulus, in this case, food. The most noted neutral stimulus that he used was ringing a bell. (Remember the old fashion dinner bell?) After pairing the bell ring with the food, eventually, just ringing the bell caused the saliva to flow. Thus was born the psychological construct of Classical Conditioning.

Common Examples of Classical Conditioning
 
Before we get into the various ways Associative Learning strengthens the Psychological Smoking Mechanism, I want to give some everyday examples that apply to both smokers and nonsmokers. When most people go to the theater or sit down to watch their favorite program on TV, what is one of the first snacks they think of? Popcorn! Through advertising both in the theater and on TV (remember Jiffy Pop? How about Orville Redenbacher with his red bow tie?), popcorn has become associated with enjoying a movie or TV show. The aroma of hot, buttered popcorn greets the theater goer as soon as they enter the building. You have to walk right past the concessions to get to the movie theaters. If that doesn't stop you to buy, the commercials before the show encourage the purchase and many people get up and go buy popcorn. Because of this programming and the subsequent Associative Learning, for many people, when they sit down to watch something enjoyable at home, making popcorn is part of the process. This is an example of Associative Learning. The positive qualities of taste and smell strengthen the urge to buy or make popcorn to enjoy the show! The more you enjoy the movie or TV show, the stronger the association with popcorn. This is because it adds the power of emotion as well as good taste and smell. A slightly different example of associative learning is provided by the following example. Suppose when you were growing up, you parents owned a blue Toyota. This car was used to take you places that you enjoyed. Perhaps they kept this car for a number of years. When they got a new car, like most people, they bought the same brand. So over time, you begin to associate your parents with Toyota cars. As an adult, whenever you see a Toyota, you will have thoughts about your parents. Of course, it doesn't take a long time for this type of association to develop if there is a great deal of emotion behind it. Suppose you fall madly in love with someone and they drive a Mustang. In short order, whenever you see a Mustang, you will think of the person you love. This is Associative Learning! All these examples show how Associative Learning works. You have a neutral stimulus, such as a brand of car, going to the theater for a movie or a favorite TV show such as a football game, paired with something that you love. In the case of popcorn, it tastes good and eating it is rewarding. In the case of the brands of cars, people that we love drive them. So, when we see the cars or go to the theater, it brings about the good feelings provided by what we love. It is this mechanism that makes the Psychological Smoking Mechanism strong.

When you First Learn to Smoke
 
No one simply picks up a cigarette and starts smoking. It is a learning process that is miserable. However, there is much motivation to smoke and the person sticks with it until they "learn" to smoke. This of course means that they use their mind to turn off the protective mechanisms that the body uses to alert you when something hazardous has entered your body. In this case, hot, polluted, chemical smoke into your delicate lung tissues that were only designed for clean air. They create the foundation of the Psychological Smoking Mechanism. It is so hard to smoke, each cigarette requires the smoker to actively suppress their body defense mechanisms. Since smoking is really an unpleasant activity, the smoker looks for ways to justify the extreme effort to smoke each cigarette. This is where Associative Learning takes place. unconsciously, the smoker is looking for positive things to pair with the act of smoking. Using Associative Learning, the smoker begins to attribute the positive qualities of an event or act with smoking and over time, the smoker assigns these qualities to the cigarette. These associations provide rationalizations to the smoker. Let's look at some common ones.

Smoking and Coffee
 
If the smoker is a coffee drinker, you can be certain that a cigarette will be part of the process. A perfect example of this is found in the movie, "Walk, Don't Run" starring Carey Grant and Samantha Eggar. In a morning scene, a female friend who carpools to work with Eggar's character arrives early and since there is extra time to chat, she offers her a cup of coffee. The friend says she'd love another cup of coffee and a cigarette! This movie was released in 1966, when about 44% of the American population smoked. Coffee by itself is a pretty powerful drink. Many people use the caffeine as a pick me up and many people drink coffee after a meal (Just think about how many times you are offered a cup of coffee after a meal in a restaurant). Coffee has become associated with aiding digestion! Does it really work? Well, years ago, I was having some gastrointestinal tests run. Before the x-rays were taken, the doctor told me, if I liked coffee, to think about it as it would cause my digestive juices to flow. Yes, coffee is a powerful drink. So what happens when you pair the powerful effects of coffee with a cigarette?. When you drink the coffee, it produces it's powerful effects, whether by the caffeine buzz or stimulating digestion. Throw in the cigarette and over time, it is assigned the effects actually produced by the coffee. The cigarette actually doesn't do any of the things that coffee does but in seeking justify the Psychological Smoking Mechanism, the smoker awards the qualities of coffee to the cigarette. Qualities the cigarette didn't earn.

Smoking and Sex
 
Probably the most powerful drive in humans is the sex drive. There are many psychological and physiological reasons why this is so. Sexual fulfillment is a powerful force for both males and females. It is no wonder that the smoker works to associate this powerful positive fulfillment by smoking afterwards. Contemporary movies are a good indicator of current trends. I mentioned "Walk, Don't Run" earlier in this article as an example of smoking with coffee. A more recent movie that demonstrated the association of smoking after sex was the comedy "Zapped" with Scott Biao, released in 1982. In this movie, set in a high school, a lab accident gives a nerdy, shy student telekinetic powers and of course chaos ensues. The exceptional abilities gives him confidence to do things he wouldn't otherwise do such as approach the girl that he's had a crush on but afraid to talk to. The new confidence leads to him having sex with his girlfriend in the lab and afterwards, he uses his telekinetic powers to retrieve and light two cigarettes which they both smoke. There is a powerful message here. A person with powerful paranormal abilities has sex and then, both the boy and girl have to smoke afterwards. The message is clear, no matter how powerful you are, you must have a smoke after sex to make it "complete".

Conclusion
 
There are many other examples of Associative Learning that the smoker uses to strengthen the Psychological Smoking Mechanism to keep smoking. If you think that smokers go out of their way to associate pleasant events and experiences with smoking, you are right! It is actually an inner drive to make these associations to justify engaging in an aversive and unpleasant behavior. The Psychological Smoking Mechanism is initially built by desire but it is strengthened by positive association using Associative Learning. Remember this the next time you smoke a cigarette after something pleasant!
Copyright 2009, R. Michael Stone

If You want to Quit Smoking, You Have to Know About Associative Learning
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