I explain the science behind making healthy choices.


The UK, France, and Ireland recently became the latest countries to require cigarette manufacturers to use plain packaging. People interested in buying cigarettes will be confronted not with company logos but with health warnings printed in large fonts. Other packages will feature graphic images of diseased, tarry lungs and clogged arteries. And in some places, packages will even include what’s been dubbed the “world’s ugliest color,” the greenish-brown hue, “Opaque Couché”

Sarah CotterillSarah Cotterill is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University.  Several media outlets including the likes of The New York times, The Washington Post and the International Business Times have cited her academic work. Sarah has been diagnosed with kidney cancer and blogs about the hardships that she faces as a cancer survivor in remission.
Editor: Arman Ahmed

These are laudable steps, particularly in terms of preventing non-smokers from starting. But psychological research points to reasons why they are likely less effective, compared to other strategies, at curbing smoking amongst those already addicted.

Smoking cigarettes, eating unhealthy foods, and buying things outside our budget are often impulsive choices—ones we make again and again, despite knowing in some broad sense that they are bad for us. And so to understand why strategies to combat them so often fail, we have to first consider how impulsivity interferes with learning and influences our decision-making.


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We know, for example, that people tend to learn more quickly when a certain behavior and its consequences (reward or punishment) are close in time. When children misbehave and are immediately sent to “time-out,” they learn to associate the behavior with the outcome. But when a behavior and its consequences unfold over months and years, as is the case with smoking or eating unhealthy foods, we have to adopt a longer-term mindset.