As anyone who's ever tried to quit smoking can attest, craving a cigarette can warp the way you think about just about anything. In a great example of this "warped" thinking in the literature1, sadistic experimenters approached German university students (who, as we know, all smoke) as they were leaving a 90-minute class, and asked if they wanted to participate in a 10-minute experiment. They were told that if they participated, they would get a cup of coffee and would be able to participate in a raffle. Half of the students who agreed to participate were tested in the classroom where smoking was prohibited, and half were taken out into the hallway. When the latter half were taken out into the hallway, the experimenter (also German, therefore also a smoker) lit up a cigarette, and predictably, the students who'd just sat through a 90-minute smokeless lecture quickly did the same, without being explicitly prompted to do so. These were the low need-to-smoke participants. The participants who were kept in the classroom to complete the study couldn't smoke (that's the sadistic part), and were thus the high need-to-smoke participants. The first part of the study completed by all participants was billed as "an investigation of the perception of objects in daily use," and presented them with a page containing 14 pictures of cigarettes of different lengths (between 80 and 90mm, arranged left-to-right by length). The participants were asked to indicate which cigarette "reflected the true length of a standard cigarette." As you've probably guessed by now, the students in the high need-to-smoke condition chose longer cigarettes as representative of the standard cigarette than did those in the low need-to-smoke condition. And that was only a manipulation check. In the main task, high need-to-smoke participants actually seemed to treat money as less valuable than the low need-to-smoke participants (an instance of what the authors term the devaluation effect). If smoking makes money seem less valuable, it's no wonder higher taxes on smoking products don't deter many smoker!
Anyway, warped perceptions of cigarette length, and the devaluation of money, are cool, but this post is about time perception. I'm sure everyone who's smoked has experienced minutes feeling like hours while craving a cigarette. Apparently inspired by stories of this experience from smokers (or having experienced it themselves), Sayette et al2 recently set out to explore the relationship between cigarette cravings and time perception. In their first experiment, participants were divided into nicotine-deprived and non-deprived conditions, and during the initial screening session, participants in the nicotine-deprived condition were told not to smoke for 12 hours before the experimental session, while non-deprived participants were told to smoke as they usually would (to test whether they complied with these instructions, participants' carbon monoxide levels were tested during screening and at the beginning of the experimental session, and the two tests were compared). Upon arriving for the experimental session, participants in the two conditions were given one of two kinds of cues. For the non-deprived participants, a box was placed on the table in front of them, and they were instructed to open it. Inside was a roll of tape, and they were instructed to pick it up and hold it in their hands. The nicotine-deprived participants weren't so lucky. A box was placed on the table in front of them, and they were told to open it. Inside was a pack of cigarettes (their own pack, which they had given the experimenter upon arriving) and a lighter. In an act of unprecedented sadism, the experimenters told the participants to pick up the cigarettes and the lighter, light a cigarette without putting it in their mouth, and then hold it (without smoking it). This was meant to increase their cravings.
While the participants were holding their objects (the roll of tape or the lit cigarette), they completed a 12-item questionnaire, and were then asked how long they had been holding the item (a "retrospective" estimation). After that, they were all told that they could smoke in exactly 2 1/2 minutes, and were then told to indicate to the experimenter when they believed 45 and 90 seconds had passed (a "prospective" estimation).
As every smoker would expect, participants in the deprived condition slightly overestimated the amount of time that had passed in the retrospective estimation, and indicated that 45 and 90 seconds had passed before they actually had, in the prospective condition. Their estimates were different from the non-deprived participants, who actually tended to underestimate the amount of time that had passed. Interestingly, the deprived participants' estimates were more accurate, overall, than those of the non-deprived participants. This is likely because, in the time-estimation literature, people tend to underestimate the amount of time that has passed, just as the non-deprived participants did. The fact that the non-deprived participants were more accurate, and even overestimated how much time has passed, is an indication that the cravings really did affect their time perception. However, the difference between the deprived and non-deprived conditions was statistically significant only in the 45-second estimate, but in each case, the deprived participants' estimates were longer than those of the non-deprived participants.
In their second experiment, a new group of participants (which were called the "experience group") who'd also gone 12 hours prior to the experimental session without a cigarette were shown the box, opened it, picked up the cigarette, lit it, but were not able to smoke it even after the 2 1/2 minute period. They were then asked to sit quietly in the experiment room after 5, 10, 15, 25, 35, and 45 minutes, were asked to rate their "urge to smoke" on a 100 point scale. The nicotine-deprived participants from the first experiment had been asked, right after they had begun to hold their newly lit cigarette that they could not smoke, to estimate their "urge to smoke" at the same time intervals. For this second experiment, these participants were called the "anticipate group."
The comparison of interest is between the ratings over time for the experience group, and the estimate ratings for the anticipate group over the same time period. For the experience group (black bars in the graph below), the "urge to smoke" ratings did not change significantly over the 45 minutes. The anticipate group (white bars), however, predicted that their cravings would increase dramatically over time. The difference between the two groups was significant. Here is the graph of the data (from Figure 1, p. 91):
Now these are experienced smokers, so you would think that they'd have a good handle on how their cravings act over time, but obviously something about having the craving in at this moment distorts your perception of how it will change over time if you do not smoke a cigarette.
The importance of this study for counseling is pretty clear. As the authors note, smoking relapses are closely related to cravings, and if people believe that their cravings will increase over time, and furthermore, actually perceive time as going by more slowly, they will have a harder time resisting those cravings. What's important, then, is to educate people about the actual behavior and effects of cravings, showing them that cravings don't actually get worse over time (though notably, they don't appear to get any better, either). As someone who had to go through the process of quitting smoking, I can definitely appreciate the value of that knowledge. One of the more difficult aspects of quitting is an intense craving that overwhelms your ability to think about much of anything besides cigarettes, and the fear that not only are you going to suffer more, but that if you don't do something about this craving right now, it's going to get worse, and you're not going to get anything accomplished. Of course, this information alone isn't going to get people to quit smoking, but it may help them when they try. And from the experiment I described at the beginning of this post, we also know that offering them raffle tickets for cash won't help, and that really big cigarettes will look extra attractive.
1Brendl, C.M., Markman, A.B., & Messner, C. (2003). The Devaluation Effect: Activating a Need Devalues Unrelated Objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 29, 463-473
2Sayette, M.A, Loewenstein, G., Kirchner, T.R., & Travis, T. (2005). Effects of smoking urge on temporal cognition. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 19(1), 88-93.