For decades, those who smoked were regarded as having poor moral character or suffering from weakness of will/lack of self-control. Even with all the studies showing the addictive qualities of nicotine enhanced with additives engineered by the tobacco industry and the tobacco settlement of 1998, there is still more than a whiff of moral disapprobation if not outright condemnation directed at smokers. The whiff has become a gigantic puff with a recent study by behavioral scientists Eyal Ert and Eldad Yechiam. Their results were published in PLOS one with an abbreviated opinion piece in The New York Times

Ert and Yechiam seem to acknowledge there are some smokers who are hopeless addicts. (This is Ert and Yechiam’s expression and not mine.) These are the people who perhaps are not capable of quitting. Disturbingly, it is not clear how and where they draw the line between those who are capable of quitting and those who are not. To me, it seems reasonable to assume that Ert and Yechiam are working with several categories: "smoker," "addicted smoker," and "hopelessly addicted smoker," and that each of the first two categories is a spectrum. Are smokers and addicted smokers the people whom Ert and Yechiam believe capable of quitting? This is never clearly identified but that was the assumption I made reading their study.

Their study asks why smokers continue to smoke even though they know how hazardous it is to their health. The researchers offered two options: smokers either have a higher tolerance for risk or they have poor self-control.

In logic, we call an “either...or” statement a disjunction. Additionally, the researchers are appealing to a particular kind of disjunction involving an "exclusive or." This means that only one side can be true. If one side is false, the other is necessarily true.

Using a modified version of the Iowa gambling task, the researchers found that smokers are no more risk tolerant than nonsmokers. Thus, their conclusion is that smokers have poor self-control. More specifically, smokers are "chronically low on self-control."

Two sets of questions immediately arise. First, why structure the argument as a disjunction with only these two options constituting it? I understand there is an argument for complexity of experiments and wanting to control variables in order to test a hypothesis. But a disjunction need not have only two parts (disjuncts). Choosing these as the "two contenders” is a very significant move for which the authors seem to offer insufficient justification.

Second, why the use of the "exclusive or?" A disjunction can involve an "inclusive or"; both side may be true. Isn't it probable that there are multiple reasons why people smoke? The same person may have different reasons for smoking at different times in her life. These reasons may not always be transparent to smokers themselves and those who study them.

Putting logical objections to the side for now, the definition of self-control comes with its own baggage. Poor self-control of smokers is "their relative inability to delay satisfaction and respect long-term considerations (like their health)." But this definition makes at least two problematic assumptions. The first is that there is a way to draw a sharp line between short term satisfaction and long term considerations. Time is a funny thing; it seems to fly or drag depending on so many factors. In some instances, getting to tomorrow may seem a long term consideration.

The other assumption is that the defining or most important competition is between a short term satisfaction and a long term gain. However, long term gains can be in competition with each other. One might be able to live longer (health) but what if she is deeply unhappy for that extended time? Health and happiness can be in conflict. Different aspects of health can be in conflict as well. One's lungs may be better but what if one's anxiety is off the charts?

My final and deepest concern with this study is the scope of the conclusion that smokers lack self-control. In other words, is the conclusion smokers lack self-control with respect to smoking (a more local claim) or is it that smokers lack self-control about other areas of life (a more general claim)?  The conclusion that smokers are “chronically low on self-control,” implies the more general claim. This is disturbing. The general claim can come to function as an explanation for everything a person does. It provides a quick and easy way to reduce people to a behavior or set of behaviors, label, and then blame them.

About the Author

Peg O'Connor Ph.D.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and gender, women, and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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