GroupQuit

You may have heard some version of this study, which shows that people do not quit smoking on their own; they quit in groups. NPR this morning aired it as a new hot tip on how to quit. What it really is is substantial evidence showing how much of our behavior is the result of groupthink: collections of individuals acting as a brain -- a brain greater than the sum of its neurons. Howard Bloom's Global Brain -- one of the coolest science books ever written -- gives more examples of this, but this is a great one, and very human one.


Researchers discovered a trove of records that shows the health data and human relationships of thousands of people over 30+ years. With this they were able to create a map showing relationships and smoker/nonsmoker status. What they discovered shows just to what extent the human primate is a social animal.

They discovered that smokers smoke in groups. If your group smokes, it's hard to quit. If your group doesn't, it's hard to smoke. Over the course of decades, fewer people smoked. The people at the center of the social web -- the ones with the most connections -- are the least likely to smoke. The people who are more socially isolated, on the fringes, are the most likely to smoke. 
The researchers focused on 5,124 people in the Framingham study who had 53,228 friends, relatives and neighbors as part of their social networks.

They noticed that, on average, smokers clustered in groups of three. Over the years, as fewer and fewer Americans smoked, the number of clusters declined but the clusters that remained stayed the same size, which meant that smokers were not stopping smoking one by one. They were stopping in groups.

Education also played a role. Those with more education were more highly influenced by their friends, and their friends were more likely to influence them. And some social contacts were more influential than others. A spouse’s quitting was more powerful than a friend’s, and a friend’s quitting was more powerful than a sibling’s. If someone you name as a friend quits, that has more of an effect than if someone who names you as their friend quits. Co-workers had an influence only in small firms where everyone knew one another. The effects were greater among casual smokers than heavy smokers.
What we're seeing here is the confluence of being more educated, more influential, and more influenced: it's like being the strongest most well-connected and useful neuron in the brain. In this case, smoking is a meme (I mean this in the Dawkins sense, not the silly internet game sense) being tried on and subsequently discarded by a human super-organism whose brain is you and me.

Further proof of this comes in what the NYTimes article calls "the sad side":

But there also is a sad side. As Dr. Steven Schroeder of the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out in an editorial accompanying the paper, “a risk of the marginalization of smoking is that it further isolates the group of people with the highest rate of smoking — persons with mental illness, problems with substance abuse, or both.”

These are people, Dr. Schroeder notes, who already suffer from being stigmatized.
While they're treating having mental illness, being a substance abuser, and being an abused person as separate issues from being a smoker, what this study says more than anything is that these things are related: through social ability (or lack of it). The same social ineptness that dooms a person to one problem dooms him or her to the others. Being social is its own reward, but it carries other benefits too: the support and smarts to stay high in the social hierarchy (and so not be subject to abuse), the confidence and happiness that makes drugs unnecessary. Mental illness itself might impair a person's ability to read and interact with others appropriately -- in other words to be social. Being social means being influenced, and in years when a whole society is becoming increasingly aware of the danger and folly of smoking, being influenced means quitting. 

The whole human super-organism's brain has tried smoking on, and, after a century or so, rejected it as unhelpful. Brain cell by brain cell, we individuals are getting the message and playing out the meme.

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