Some research suggests that it may be true. This news comes from Ohio State University, where researchers found that smokers who are good at math are more likely to quit – or at least to say they plan to quit. A test showed them to have a better memory for numbers and the statistics related to the risks posed by smoking, which increased their motivation to quit. Study leader Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, PhD., an assistant professor of psychology, said the results may help explain why many studies have found that smokers who are more educated are more likely to stop.
A total of 696 adult smokers in the U.S. participated in the Ohio State online study. At the start they each were given a short, standardized test measuring numeracy (the ability to deal with numbers and use them to solve problems). Then they were shown eight different cigarette warning labels four times each. These labels contained various images, including a cartoon gravestone or a photo of a damaged lung, plus text related to the risk of smoking, such as “75.4 percent of smokers will die before the age of 85, compared to 53.7 percent of non-smokers.” At various points, the participants were asked to rate the labels for credibility and relevance and note their emotional reaction to each one.
Either immediately after the experiment or six weeks later, the participants responded to questions designed to see how much of the risk information they remembered, as well as questions aimed at determining their perception of their personal risk related to smoking and how likely they thought they were to quit in the next 30 days or the following year.
Participants who scored higher in numeracy tended to have better memory for the risks of smoking, including the label statistics. This correlated with stronger intentions to quit.
Professor Shoots-Reinhard said the results suggest that smokers who are less numerate tend to have very superficial knowledge about the health risks of smoking and that the participants “who better understood numbers had a better understanding of the risks.” She added that “we need to find a way to communicate that to people who aren’t as numerate.”
These are interesting findings, although it is hard to imagine that the health risks of smoking aren’t well known by both smokers and non-smokers regardless of their mathematical abilities. For the record: people who quit smoking are much less likely to experience a heart attack, other heart problems or stroke, or to die from a cardiovascular cause than those who continue to smoke. Here are some numbers from the American Cancer Society that may inspire smokers to quit: 20 minutes after the last cigarette your heart rate and blood pressure drop; 12 hours later the carbon monoxide in your blood drops to normal levels; two weeks to three months later your circulation improves and your lung function increases, one year later your excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who still smokes and your heart attack risk drops dramatically.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Brittany Shoots-Reinhard et al, “Numeracy and memory for risk probabilities and risk outcomes depicted on cigarette warning labels.” Health Psychology, doi.org/10.1037/hea0000879