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TC Researchers Receive $1 Million to Study Self-control in Smoking

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TC Researchers Receive $1 Million to Study Self-control in Smoking

Kathleen O'Connell

Interdisciplinary collaboration at Teachers College has been rewarded with a research grant from the National Institutes of Health. Kathleen O'Connell, The Isabel Maitland Stewart Chair of Nursing Education, was awarded a three-year renewal of more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health for her project, PERSIST (Project Examining the Role of Self-Control in Smoking Temptation).

The new study focuses on the role of self-control, strength and what co-principal investigator, George Bonanno, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education, calls "diminished agency," in resisting temptations to smoke during smoking cessation.

The study incorporates a new theory by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University (Muraven and Baumeister, 2000), which posits that self-control is a limited and consumable resource much like the strength of a muscle. If exercised for a long time without rest, the muscle loses strength and becomes exhausted. Much like a muscle, self-control may lose strength if repeatedly tempted and a relapse may occur. The theory also maintains that, like a muscle, self-control can be strengthened with practice and restored with rest.

"From this theory, I hypothesized," said O'Connell, "that frequent and prolonged temptations to smoke and those accompanied by especially high cravings for a cigarette would deplete self-control resources and would lead to lapses. Another hypothesis is that sleep, which is similar to resting a muscle, helps restore self-control. As a result of previous studies by my own research team and two other groups of smoking cessation researchers, we have three large sets of data available to us. The data was generated by people attempting to quit smoking who carried tape recorders and palm-held computers. The tape recorders were used to collect narrative accounts of the experiences of those who were quitting smoking. The computers were used to administer questionnaires several times a day for the first several weeks of cessation."

PERSIST is also looking at George Bonanno's concept of diminished agency. Diminished agency focuses on how a person expresses his/her control over a situation. Professor Bonanno, who studies coping with grief and trauma, works with individuals who have lost their spouses.

He has them tell a story or tell about their experiences and rates their narratives for diminished agency. Diminished agency is in the grammar and the content of what people say.

For example, one category of diminished agency is negation. People admit, "I can't do this" or "somebody won't let me do it." Another has to do with whether people talk in a passive voice or act in a passive way. Expressions like, "this experience made me mad and therefore it made me smoke" are indicators. As a diminished agent, a person does not take responsibility for his/her self.

O'Connell said, "This system that Professor Bonanno has used with bereavement-that feeling of being out of control, of being a diminished agent, might be very relevant to quitting smoking."

Bonanno, O'Connell and their research group are coding the narratives collected from the previous smoking cessation studies for diminished agency.

O'Connell believes that her research may be relevant to other conditions that require self-control, from over eating to drug abuse. Techniques suggested but not yet tested are avoiding temptations, which involves staying out of places where you're tempted because that diminishes your self-control. Other suggestions encourage positive experiences, such as, getting away, having a good time, and relaxing, which may restore self-control. "Learning to control your own behavior is critical to a number of health-promoting practices. We hope our research results in reliable methods we can teach people to help them change their behavior and stay healthy."

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