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Smoking and Society: How Social Norms Affect Smoking Behaviors

Simply put, in order to survive we must conform. It is written deep down in our code, since the earliest form of conformity took place when our ancestors formed tribes with the sole purpose of gathering food and providing safety. One might argue that man can provide enough food alone. But in the context of not being the only species on earth, and the existence of so many predators around, conformity was a must to survive. It is a widely held assumption that young people engage in smoking or any other risky behavior (alcohol or drugs) because of their peers’ pressure on them to do so.  And while this presumption is widespread, and it’s where most anti-smoking campaigns and school programs are focusing efforts: against the active pressure of peers and learning to say no… It’s a bit counterintuitive. In this article we will discuss briefly how smoking affects and is affected by society and societal norms.

Smoking and Peer Pressure *

Let us keep in mind that being in a group already has a powerful effect on the individual. There can be substantial changes in behavior, especially negative behavior, if that individual was a member of a group or not. A research by Kiesler & Kiesler (1969) made it clear: Individuals are less afraid of the negative consequences of their actions when in a group; which is why riot or mob acts are seldom done on an individual basis. And due to the aforementioned benefits, conformity with the social norms proposed by the group members have a direct impact on one’s behavior. And refusing to conform to them would lead to banishment and rejection. And hence, the fear of it. And fear, needless to say, is such a strong motive.

Reports have shown that peer influence or pressure in its direct form is not why adolescents initiated smoking in the first place. Yes, there is evidence that smoking adolescents DO offer their peers cigarettes, and that’s within the context of what some might call a “bad company.” And yes it’s somewhat of a pressure on non-smoking adolescents, but it’s not the strongest one; there’s a far stronger pressure that’s hiding in plain sight.

The Perception of Social Norms *

As we mentioned before, conformity is a survival must, and we all conform in our own societies, one way or another. But conformity itself is a two-way subtle line of communication. Groups accept newbie members based on shared and mutual characteristics (which is obvious). But also, one tends to adapt with the perceived traits and behaviors within the group, the norms, in order to be accepted.

And perceived is italicized to differentiate between the two: actual peer pressure to smoke, as in “You’re not hanging out with us if you’re not gonna smoke this.” And perceived peer pressure, as in “They’re all smoking and talking about it, and I have no say in this, I feel excluded”

On the bright side, and for the sigh of relief, the aforementioned can also work on discouraging the behavior. This makes it clear, that focusing efforts on teaching adolescents to reject and disapprove the smoking behavior can have results, yes, but only on the direct type of pressure. But that approach lacks efficiency because it’s mostly going under the veneer of ‘perceived’

study has made it clear: adolescents don’t see ‘peer pressure’ as what got them to start smoking, but it’s the ‘internal feeling’ that they need to smoke to fit in. And while, of course, they’ve been under the regular direct pressure to smoke, and most likely they said no, because of what this or that campaign said… Influence has figuratively disguised itself in their internal voice and simply said: “Hey, I think we should start smoking” and so they followed.

Let’s  also not forget the obvious: since there would be even more evidence to show how devious and simple it can be to start smoking merely because “lots of people do it anyway.”

Imitation Vs. Peer Pressure *

You’d find that the imitation process starts usually with an observation of others smoking, whether they’re close friends, peers, or even parents. And then just doing the same. Simple as that. That innocent imitation of puffing a cigarette that children can do with a long piece of bubble gum is an act of imitation. The same reason why smokers are irresistibly urged to smoke a cigarette when they see perfect strangers doing it. Even without being offered one. It’s almost the same as watching people yawn, so you follow.

And it’s not just that, a study on conformity has explained that the perception of a certain behavior as ‘relatively more widespread’ leads to a later adoption of the same behavior. Which correlates with the fact that smokers had high estimates to the number of smokers they know, in comparison with nonsmokers, given that they measured their estimations upon their family members and the closest five friends they have to come up with the percentage.

This is amplified and reinforced strongly by this study suggesting that not only peer influence can be characterized as social conformity or social acceptance, but it goes to explain how males are more likely than females to describe strong messages exerted by peers to conform to the smoking behavior, and that family members played several roles between initiator, prompter, accomplice, and inadvertent source of cigarettes. Interestingly, European American and Hispanic girls clearly mentioned having parents and/or family members as instigators to the first cigarette.

But let us address the elephant in the room and mention that parents’ smoking behavior itself is one of the most widely studied influences on adolescent smoking, with several evidences linking their smoking and initiation, regularization of smoking, and them taking smoking into their adulthood. And it’s either that, or the perception of their approval of smoking, of affiliation with smoking peers, or simply the availability of cigarettes.

Keeping in mind the drastic influence society has on individual behaviors, it is crucial to understand the deeply rooted reason why we do what we do, before we can attempt to fix a harmful behavior. It might initially seem that eliminating “bad company” can be the easy fix, but now you posses the knowledge to understand why that doesn’t always work. Dig deeper!


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