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Driving in reverse: How behavioural economics can change smoking behaviour

With October nearing a close it marks the end of Stoptober. Stoptober is a scheme which encourages smokers to stop smoking for the whole of October in an attempt to quit in the long term. The campaign came about after research revealed that stopping for 28 days means a smoker is five times more likely to not go back to cigarettes.

Stopping smoking policies and plans have been classically aimed at changing attitude as a means to change behaviour. Stoptober however focuses directly on behaviour and is a prime example of behavioural economics in action:

  • Stoptober understands that behaviour is not a direct consequence of attitude: Behaviour can determine attitude rather than the other way around. For example, someone may hold the attitude that smoking is a disgusting habit, yet for certain reasons they may start smoking.
    Their attitude towards smoking will then change with the smoker now perceiving smoking as a pleasant and sociable pass-time. By reversing the process and targeting behaviour directly, we can create long term attitude and behaviour change towards smoking.
  • Stoptober understands the effects of others:  By making our values public and by making public commitments to change our behaviour, we are far more likely to stick with the behaviour change and see through the commitment to the end of the month.
  • Stoptober understands self-efficacy (peoples’ judgements of their capabilities to achieve a goal): Our perceived likelihood of success determines behaviour. It affects how much effort we put into what we are doing, how long we persist and how we feel about the task.
    The best way to increase self-efficacy is by providing opportunities for understanding, exploration and participation. Stoptober is a time where smokers are provided the necessary information to change along with testimonials and examples of how similar people have succeeded, without pushing them to make that change.
  • Stoptober understands cognitive dissonance: Smokers know of the dangers of smoking and want to live a healthy life yet they choose to smoke. To justify their smoking habit they focus on aspects of smoking that might be positive: keeping slim, being sociable etc. This shows how a behaviour can alter an attitude. Stoptober aims to remove dissonance by altering the justification to that of a non-smoker whereby they now focus on the positives of not smoking: better taste, increased lung capacity, fresh clothing etc.
  • Stoptober understands that we underestimate the importance or relevance of something that might happen in the distant future. This often manifests itself in people choosing short-term gratification over longer-term rewards. Stoptober focuses on the short term in the hope that it will lead to long term behaviour change as the smoker fosters a non-smoker identity. The aim of Stoptober is to keep the want for a new identity as a non-smoker greater than the status quo of being a smoker.

Policy makers are starting to adopt behavioural economic principles in many areas of policy. At its heart is an appreciation of how people think and act rather than what a model predicts and that everyone is different. It is the understanding that change cannot be enforced and that it is up to the individual to drive the change. With this understanding we are in a far stronger position to be making interventions that work. But let’s not stop at Stoptober, how about Checktember; the month of sexual screening or Dricember; the month of giving up alcohol? Unrealistic over Christmas I appreciate but Driebuary hardly rolls of the tongue.

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