The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why Does Intelligence Affect Smoking Differently in the US and the UK?

The answer is I don’t know but I can speculate

Several recent studies show that more intelligent Americans are more likely to smoke cigarettes, consistent with the prediction of the Hypothesis, whereas more intelligent Brits are less likely to smoke cigarettes, contrary to the prediction of the Hypothesis.  Why does intelligence have opposite effects on smoking in the US and in the UK?

The true and honest answer is that I don’t know, but I can speculate.  Among the possible differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, the public anti-smoking campaign has been far more aggressive and blatant in the United Kingdom than in the United States.  For example, in the United States, each pack of cigarettes carries the Surgeon General’s (relatively tame and clinical) warning (“Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy”) in small print, on the side of the package.  In the United Kingdom, the warnings are much more blatant and graphic (“Smoking kills,” “Smokers die younger,” “Smoking may reduce the blood flow and causes impotence,” “Smoking can cause slow and painful death”) in extremely large print, in front of the package.  Note that death is never mentioned explicitly in the Surgeon General’s warning in the US, but is frequently mentioned in the UK warnings.  (When I saw the warning “Smoking kills” for the first time in 2003, on a pack of cigarettes that my LSE colleague was smoking, I thought it was a joke.  It looked like a gag item that one might buy at a novelty store in a shopping mall, like Spencer’s or Hot Topic.)

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Because government warnings and public campaigns (as well as the written language as their medium of communication) are themselves evolutionarily novel, more intelligent individuals may be more likely to respond to them than less intelligent individuals.  This is just one of the possible reasons why intelligence may have such starkly opposite effects on smoking in the United States and the United Kingdom.

To be honest, I don’t find this a particularly convincing answer my own damn self.  I feel relatively certain that the national difference in the effect of general intelligence on smoking is robust and real, not a methodological artifact, since different studies using different data sets all confirm it, but I don’t like my own explanation for it.  I feel there is a better explanation out there; I just don’t know what it is.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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