Cognitive Regulation of Smoking Behavior Within a Cigarette: Automatic and Nonautomatic Processes

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There has been limited research on cognitive processes governing smoking behavior in individuals who are tobacco dependent. In a replication (Baxter & Hinson, 2001) and extension, this study examined the theory (Tiffany, 1990) that drug use may be controlled by automatic processes that develop over repeated use. Heavy and occasional cigarette smokers completed a button-press reaction time (RT) task while concurrently smoking a cigarette, pretending to smoke a lit cigarette, or not smoking. Slowed RT during the button-press task indexed the cognitive disruption associated with nonautomatic control of behavior. Occasional smokers’ RTs were slowed when smoking or pretending to smoke compared with when not smoking. Heavy smokers’ RTs were slowed when pretending to smoke versus not smoking; however, their RTs were similarly fast when smoking compared with not smoking. The results indicated that smoking behavior was more highly regulated by controlled, nonautomatic processes among occasional smokers and by automatic processes among heavy smokers. Patterns of RT across the interpuff interval indicated that occasional smokers were significantly slowed in anticipation of and immediately after puffing onset, whereas heavy smokers were only slowed significantly after puffing onset. These findings suggest that the entirety of the smoking sequence becomes automatized, with the behaviors leading up to puffing becoming more strongly regulated by automatic processes with experience. These results have relevance to theories on the cognitive regulation of cigarette smoking and support the importance of interventions that focus on routinized behaviors that individuals engage in during and leading up to drug use.

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