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Study Will Examine Whether 'Zooming Out' Helps Smokers Quit

A cigarette that has been put out

“Giving up smoking is easy,” Mark Twain purportedly once said. “I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

But the reality is, quitting smoking is really, really hard. Nicotine is addictive, both physically and mentally. A given effort to quit succeeds less than 10 percent of the time, no matter the method. Even with a pack of smokes costing around $6, around 15 to 20 percent of the population can’t seem to kick the habit.

Now Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor and associate managing director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the UO, wants to find out if a new technique, one that asks smokers to focus on the big picture, may help with smoking cessation. The work is part of a larger area of research in his lab on the factors that contribute to success and failure at health goals including smoking cessation, healthy eating and exercise.

Berkman is embarking on a study that will ask smokers to engage in high-level thinking as a way of avoiding lighting up. When a smoker gets a craving, instead of thinking, “Don’t smoke this cigarette” or “I must abstain,” they’ll be asked to think, “I’m becoming a better me” or “I’ll be healthier if I quit smoking.”

Berkman said when you’re a smoker and you have a craving for a cigarette, emotionally it’s a “hot” moment and your attention is focused on your immediate need, just like someone who is hungry focuses on food.

“High-level thinking is a way of balancing that out,” he said. “Instead of focusing on your immediate need, it’s a way to zoom out and help you think of the big picture.”

Data shows that when people zoom out, it helps diffuse those immediate hot emotional states, he said.

Berkman has received a five-year grant of about $3 million from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to conduct the study. He is the principal investigator and is joined by UO faculty members Rob Chavez and Sara Weston, both fellow psychology professors, and Ellen Peters, Knight Chair and director of the Center for Science Communication Research, as co-investigators, as well as collaborators from Ohio State University.

Berkman plans to recruit 240 subjects from rural areas around Eugene, which could take up to three years, with another year to analyze the data. He wants to recruit lower income individuals from more rural areas where smoking rates are higher. Smokers interested in participating can visit

Subjects will be divided into three groups, one that uses the high-level technique to try to quit smoking and two control groups that get different treatments.

The study group will receive text messages using those high-level messages, while the control groups will receive texts that focus on other topics. People in all groups will visit Berkman’s lab at the UO for brain imaging before and after the study to compare changes in brain activation.

Cigarette smoking is among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States because it increases the risk of lung cancer and other diseases. Even with nicotine-replacement therapy, such as nicotine gum or patches, it’s hard to quit.

That’s in part because on a psychological level, smoking serves a need for people, helping them manage moods and stress levels, Berkman said. On a behavioral level, cigarette smoking becomes enmeshed in a smoker’s life.

“Smokers say the hardest cigarette to give up is that first one in the morning,” he said. “It’s a foundation of your routine. It becomes a potent habit.”


This story was originally published by the University of Oregon.