Mastering this surprising skill motivates people to quit cigarettes

As any smoker can attest, quitting cigarettes is a task much easier said than done. It’s common knowledge that cigarettes and nicotine are highly addictive, and plenty of people struggle their entire lives with a tobacco habit. Still, while it’s tough to kick a cigarette habit once and for all, it isn’t impossible. With a little bit of determination and dedication, anyone can make a healthy choice for themselves and put down their pack.

In many instances, though, it’s tough for smokers to find that motivation. Again, everyone knows that cigarettes are unhealthy and cause cancer, but that isn’t exactly the first thing on a smoker’s mind when he or she is craving some nicotine.

If you or someone you know needs some extra motivation to quit cigarettes, a new study from The Ohio State University has a surprising suggestion: just learn some math! It sounds nonsensical at first, but the team at OSU has found that smokers who are skilled at math are much more likely to report a genuine desire and intention to kick their habit.

So, what’s the connection between quitting cigarettes and a penchant for mathematics? People with strong math skills are better able to remember the statistics and numbers associated with cigarette-related health issues.

“People who had better math skills remembered more of the scary numbers about smoking risks that we gave them, and that made a difference,” says lead study author Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, a research assistant professor in psychology at The Ohio State University, in a press release. 

This is the first time a research project has linked strong math skills, often referred to as numeracy, with smoking habits. A group of smokers was given a math test, and everyone who did well on the exam was also much more likely to say they are planning on quitting cigarettes soon.

“These results may help explain why many studies find that smokers who are more educated are more likely to successfully quit,” Shoots-Reinhard adds.

Just under 700 U.S. smokers took part in this research online. To start, everyone was given a short exam that tested their math skills. Then, each smoker was shown eight separate cigarette warning labels four times. The warning labels were just like those seen on store shelves all over and depicted various unsettling images such as a gravestone or a damaged lung.

Also, each label included a piece of text (“smoking can kill you”) paired with a statistic regarding smokers’ health. For example, “75.4 percent of smokers will die before the age of 85, compared to 53.7 percent of non-smokers.”

As each smoker was looking over these images and statistics, they were asked periodically by researchers about their emotional reactions to what they were looking at, how much they believed what they were reading, and whether or not they believed those statistics applied to them.

Next, either immediately after or six months later, participants were asked a series of questions gauging how much of the health warnings and statistics they remembered from the labels.

Everyone was also asked if they could see themselves quitting cigarettes in the future, either over the following 30 days or in the next year.

In summation, participants who scored very well on the initial math exam had stronger memories regarding the health warnings on the labels and accompanying statistics.

Consequently, due to their accurate recollections of smoking’s risks, these participants also reported a higher perceived risk of smoking for themselves and a more determined mindset to quit cigarettes in the near future.

“Smokers who are less numerate tend to have a very superficial knowledge about the health risks of their habit,” Shoots-Reinhard comments. “What we saw here is that people who better-understood numbers had a better understanding of the risks. We need to find a way to communicate that to people who aren’t as numerate.”

In light of their findings, Shoots-Reinhard and her team believe cigarette risk awareness campaigns need to include simpler infographics and statistics that are easily understood and digested by everyone.

“We want people to understand the risk information in order to make more informed decisions. Our results suggest that may help them make the decision to quit,” she concludes.

Remember in high school when you couldn’t stop wondering when in the world you would have to use algebra during regular, adult life? While no one will have to solve A squared plus B squared to quit cigarettes, this study does provide some much-needed evidence for math teachers the world over to use as motivation for their students.

The full study can be found here, published in Health Psychology.