Do Smokers Want to Quit?

February 24, 2008

Where is the line between “can’t” and “don’t want to”? The fact that 80% of smokers say they want to quit but “can’t” is not, for me, persuasive on the issue of whether addiction is rational. There are a whole host of things that I “want to do” but am not doing. I often say I “can’t” ever become fluent in German, even though I would like to. But do I really mean that I can’t, in the sense the I don’t believe it’s even theoretically possible? Hardly. Basically, I mean that becoming fluent, though something I value, isn’t something I think is worth the full range of short-term sacrifices I would have to make to achieve it.

One of the explanations I cite most frequently comes from my Economics of Information professor, who described why the stated time-preferences of a single person can be hard to interpret. A person may tell you that he wishes he had worked hard rather than screwing around. Still, in understanding this statement, you have to consider the fact that he is no longer getting any of the benefits of the screwing around he did in the past. All the benefits are used up, and only the long-term costs remain.

So if you were to ask me, of course my current self would rather have more of the good “completed studying”; it costs nothing now and I benefit from it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I really should have studied, because when I made the original decision, I still hadn’t experienced the short-term benefits. Similarly, a smoker who says he wants to quit may just be anticipating what his future self will say about his future preferences: he will prefer not to have smoked. Indeed, it would be quite odd if he didn’t, because all the benefits of smoking are used up right away, whereas the costs come later.

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One Response to “Do Smokers Want to Quit?”


  1. […] is definitely relevant to my old argument that some people genuinely prefer to smoke, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I wrote […]


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