Researchers have been puzzled over the years why smokers – who well know their habit endangers their health and that nicotine is addictive – often don’t want to stop. It has long been thought they have a risk-taking personality that dismisses the danger of cigarettes.

Around 22 percent of Israeli adults smoke, and 10,000 die of direct and passive smoking in an average year. It is the biggest cause of preventable death in the world.

However, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researchers have, through the simulation of games, found that smokers are mainly motivated by an urge for instant gratification.

The research was recently published in the open-access online journal PLOS ONE.

Previous studies have shown that compared to nonsmokers, smokers are more likely to exhibit a variety of other risky behaviors; for example, smokers tend to be more involved in traffic accidents, are less likely to wear seat belts and are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. Women smokers are 12% to 15% less likely to go for a mammogram to detect breast cancer.

But the researchers thought there was more to it, as smokers also show careful behavior. A total of 100 Technion students (51 men and 49 women) were thus collected to participate in an experiment. Participants were paid NIS 30 for showing up, plus a monetary bonus earned in association with their performance. They earned on average about NIS 55.

They had a number of decks of cards to choose from and were told in advance that some decks were “worse” than others and that they should avoid those decks to win the game.

The participants learned that a risky alternative yields the best common outcomes; the results supported the assertion that, similarly to high-functioning drug abusers, smokers could not resist selecting from an alternative that yielded highly noticeable positive rewards, even though it also produced large infrequent penalties resulting in an overall loss.

The researchers concluded that smokers consistently exhibit less selfcontrol; which leads them to make choices that are commonly rewarding but may be risky on occasion.

“We don’t claim that smokers are unable to control themselves or that’s the only reason for their smoking,” said Eyal Ert, a senior lecturer of behavioral and management sciences at the Hebrew University. “But the research shows a stronger tendency to focus on immediate profit and not risk taking. We believe the finding is an important element in understanding the factors that cause smoking.”

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