Nicotine cravings hit harder than people imagine

The nicotine in cigarettes is just as addictive as hard drugs. Unsurprisingly, when many smokers try to wean themselves off cigarettes, their dependency on nicotine manifests in the form of cravings. For most smokers, the pressure of nicotine cravings is all too familiar – they’re like a psychological bungee cord that yanks those who try to quit back towards their lighters.

Now, a simple study published in Psychological Science suggests that while smokers are familiar with cravings, they drastically underestimate their impact if they aren’t actually experiencing them at the time.


The researchers describe this inability to predict the future as a “cold-to-hot empathy gap”. When people aren’t in the grip of cravings (when they are “cold”), they can’t foresee how they will feel when the cravings return (when they are “hot”). The same processes also apply to hunger, sexual desire or drug addiction.

To test people’s ability to predict their own cravings, the team recruited about 100 smokers, who all smoked at least 10 cigarettes a day and were not interested in quitting. They divided them into two groups – a “hot” group and a “cold” one.

The “hot” group were asked to abstain from smoking for 12 hours before the session (and the researchers checked that they had done this with a breath test). They were given a cigarette and asked to light it but to refrain from smoking it. The “cold” group were allowed to smoke right up to the start of the experiment and they were just asked to hold up a roll of tape rather than a cigarette.

Both groups were then told that in the second session, they would all be asked to avoid smoking for 12 hours beforehand and then hold a lit cigarette without smoking it. In short, they would all be “hot”. They were also told that in this future scenario, they would be offered some money if they would be willing to delay smoking their cigarette.

Their task was to gaze into the future and tell the experimenters how much money it would take to convince them to delay smoking for an extra five minutes. And once the second session actually kicked off, all the volunteers were given a chance to revise their earlier estimates.

As predicted, people who were cold in the first session ended up asking for more money than they had originally guessed, in order to delay their puff. Because they hadn’t been experiencing cravings in the first session, they had underestimated how strongly they would want to smoke in the second session.

The volunteers who were hot in both sessions did nothing of the sort and in fact, they slightly reduced the amount of money they asked for. That suggests that they remembered from the first time around how hard they would find it to resist, and needed less incentive to hold off.

What does it mean?

Studies like this have strong implications for people who are trying to quit. Most people make the big decision when they aren’t yearning for cigarettes, which is exactly when they are worst at predicting how powerful their cravings will be. As a result, people who are trying to quit could also underestimate the influences of external factors in triggering their cravings, such as smoke wafting by them at a bus stop or the sight of a friend lighting up.

This “cold-to-hot” gap could also affect non-smokers, who may be tempted to try a cigarette after underestimating their addictive potential. After all, if smokers themselves find it difficult to appreciate their own cravings, what chance do non-smokers have if they have never touched a cigarette before?