How to Quit Smoking, Based on Your Personality
Personality-informed smoking cessation.
Posted Dec 29, 2019
Tis' the season for New Year's Resolutions! Quitting smoking is a perennially popular resolution and one that most people fail to achieve on their first attempt. It might be that serious behavioral change is hard because "one size fits all" advice just doesn't work for most people. In this article, I will offer some personality-informed suggestions that might increase your chances of successful change. The advice might be adapted from smoking cessation to any other self-improvement challenge, like losing weight, taking better care of finances, etc.
First, you need to learn your Big Five personality traits. Here's a link to a free and reliable online test. You will get more out of what follows if you complete the test first and make note of your scores. The premise of this article is that a person who is higher in the trait of, say, conscientiousness, might need to follow a different behavioral change strategy than someone who is lower in that same personality trait. So, the first step is to find out whether you are higher or lower in the "Big Five" traits (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). It's important to note: some Big Five tests, like the one I linked to, re-label Openness to Experience as "Intellect/Imagination" and re-label and reverse-score Neuroticism as "Emotional Stability." So, if the test says you are high in Emotional Stability, then that means you are low in Neuroticism.
People who are higher in Openness to Experience are more likely to introduce change into their lives, so a challenge like quitting smoking could be seen by them almost as an adventure. They should embrace the opportunity to become a new, different version of themselves, and they should be aware that as they remove an old behavior from their lives (e.g., smoking) they might benefit from introducing something new to replace it. Don't just quit something, start something! Take up a new hobby or activity, or learn a new skill — the money you used to spend on cigarettes can pay for dance lessons, language programs, or a trip to someplace you've never been!
For those lower in Openness to Experience, breaking out of a routine can feel destabilizing. Smoking, for all its negative health effects, has been a constant in their lives — something that has been there reliably for a long time. They can't be expected to just jettison this tried-and-true companion. They need to replace the smoking routine with a different, healthier routine. If they took a smoke break outside the office every two hours at work, maybe they could take a walking break instead. If they purchased cigarettes every time they filled up with gas, they might benefit from buying something else at that time (e.g., a small toy for their kids or a healthy snack). Doing five push-ups before every cigarette they smoke and then gradually increasing that "payment" can help Low Openness to Experience people quit.
High Conscientiousness people are probably more likely to succeed with smoking cessation plans that ask people to gradually reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke. For example, a pack-a-day smoker might start with 20 cigarettes a day and then reduce the amount they smoke by one cigarette every two days (i.e., 20, 20, 19, 19, 18, 18, 17, 17...3, 3, 2, 2. 1, 1). People with higher Conscientiousness are future-oriented and good at planning. Seeing a future goal, aiming at it, and hitting it are all deeply satisfying to them. If they set a "quit date," they are more likely to stick to it.
People who are lower in Conscientiousness have more problems with impulse control and they are more "now-oriented." Having cigarettes around increases the likelihood that those cigarettes will be smoked. They may be better off practicing what psychologists call "stimulus control" — keep the thing they are trying to avoid out of their environment: If you don't have cigarettes (or cupcakes or alcohol) in your house you will be less likely to indulge in them. Low Conscientiousness individuals might have better luck quitting "cold turkey" than by gradual reduction.
People are commonly advised to inform their family and friends that they are quitting smoking, but this advice might work best for people who are higher in Extroversion. Extroverted individuals spend more time with others and are more responsive to others' attitudes and behaviors. Extroverts have larger social support networks and, therefore, more people hold them accountable when they are making a positive behavioral change. Make use of that! But extroverts should also be aware that they are more susceptible to negative peer influences as well. While they are in the process of quitting smoking, and probably for a considerable time thereafter, extroverts should consciously limit the time they spend socializing with other smokers.
Introverts (people with low Extroversion scores) are more impervious to peer influences. In fact, they might be unusually resistant to pleas by others to quit smoking, perceiving these entreaties to be an assault on their treasured autonomy. Introverts need to figure out why they want to quit smoking and quit for their own reasons, not because others want them to. Quitting might be harder for them because they are "going it alone" — but once they succeed they can savor the accomplishment as theirs alone.
People who are high in Agreeableness are cooperative and thoughtful, and have a tendency to put others' needs ahead of their own. It is these people who are probably the most responsive to smoking cessation messages regarding the dangers of second-hand smoke. A high Agreeableness person, whose first grandchild has just been born, might be motivated to quit because they don't want to risk harming the infant with second-hand smoke or because they don't want the child to lose a grandparent at a young age.
Those lower in Agreeableness may be more likely to do something just because someone said they didn't think it could be done. A low Agreeableness person might look at the dismal first-attempt quit rates of cigarette smokers and immediately see themselves as an exception to those probabilities: "I will succeed where so many have failed!" they might say. A friend of someone low in Agreeableness might, therefore, propose, "I bet you $1,000 that you can't go without tobacco for six months." While a high Agreeableness person might meekly agree, a low Agreeableness person might find themselves rising to the challenge, eager to prove the friend wrong.
People who are higher in Neuroticism (i.e., lower in Emotional Stability) are more reactive to stressful life events. These people might find the stress of quitting more painful than do most people giving up the tobacco habit. They might be more likely to experience the common nicotine withdrawal symptoms of irritability, restlessness, and agitation. Therefore, they might be more likely to benefit from the smoking cessation medication Zyban (which is just the antidepressant Wellbutrin re-branded for smokers).
Low Neuroticism individuals are more likely to wonder why they didn't quit smoking sooner, as they are likely to report that quitting was "a lot easier than I thought it was going to be." These Emotionally Stable people are generally less likely to start smoking in the first place, which might be why quitting, like most things in their lives, seems to be "no big deal." Framing smoking as something that nervous or stressed out people do in order to manage their emotions might make smoking seem ego-dystonic to the Low Neuroticism person (i.e., "not the sort of thing people like me do"). Low Neurotics may be less influenced by health warnings such as "half of all smokers end up dying from a smoking-related illness").
The bottom line is that what works for one person might not work for another. The Big Five personality model offers some useful insights into how people differ and might help you or someone you care about achieve a positive change in the new year.