Committing to Quitting: What the Science of Self-Control can teach us about Giving Up Tobacco

Today, we know more about willpower than at any other time in history. Over the past few decades, leading sports psychologists and academics have discovered which parts of our brain are responsible for self-control, and why it’s so hard for us to fight temptation, even when we know that something is bad for us. 

Quitting tobacco using willpower alone is the least effective way to quit tobacco, but the fact remains that it’s the UK’s most popular quitting method. Given that so many of us are trying to quit with nothing but our own powers of self-control, what steps can we take to boost our willpower reserves? Can a richer understanding of what’s going on in our brains when we’re trying to quit make it easier for us to quit smoking for good?

How would a sports psychologist quit cigarettes?
In the London 2012 Olympic Games, Team GB earned a breathtaking 29 gold medals — our best medal haul in over a century. More than a quarter of those medals were delivered by the GB Cycling team, thanks to the groundbreaking methods of a sports psychiatrist named Dr Steve Peters. 

A Middlesbrough native and masters athlete himself, Dr Peters has spent years working with some of Britain’s greatest sportsmen and women, including Sir Chris Hoy and Ronnie O’ Sullivan. His expertise lies in helping elite athletes to separate their instinctive, emotional thoughts from the rational, controlled thoughts they rely on to perform at peak levels. 

Dr Peters’ book, The Chimp Paradox, set out some of the performance management strategies used by Team GB in the 2012 Olympic. In his book, Dr Peters explains that within our brains we all have an irrational and emotional part (our brain’s limbic system, which Dr Peters nicknames our ‘chimp’) and a more logical, sensible part (our prefrontal cortex, which Dr Peters describes as the ‘human’ part of our brains — the part of our brains that is truly ‘us’). The ‘chimp’ part of our brain is focused on making choices that lead us towards food, survival and immediate gratification, while the ‘human’ part handles long-term planning and decision-making. 

When we’re trying to resist temptation (skip the chocolate bar) , delay gratification (save for retirement), or stay cool under pressure (chasing gold in the Olympics), we’re often fighting the urges of our own internal ‘chimp’. The brain’s limbic system is always looking for ways to make life easier and safer right now, and we’re hard-wired to listen to that part of our brain first ... which is a problem for anyone trying to quit tobacco.

Why Quitting Tobacco With Willpower Alone Is So Hard
The world’s leading self-control experts have discovered that this conflict within our own brains (the battle between the limbic ‘chimp’ and the frontal ‘human’) is the main reason why we’re all susceptible to willpower failures. Dr Kelly McGonigal, a psychology lecturer at Stanford University in the USA, describes the limbic/prefrontal conflict as as ‘one brain but two minds’:

“... we have one brain but two minds—or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of us that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals. Sometimes we identify with the person who wants to lose weight, and sometimes we identify with the person who just wants the cookie. This is what defines a willpower challenge: Part of you wants one thing, and another part of you wants something else.”

 - Kelly McGonigal PhD, The Willpower Instinct, 2013

If you’re a smoker, your brain has learned to depend on the dopamine and noradrenaline rush that comes with the nicotine hit of a cigarette (we covered this in our recent article - see Using e-Cigarettes to Quit Smoking). When you skip a scheduled cigarette, your brain notices that the dopamine and noradrenaline hits aren’t coming. Our ‘inner chimps’ know that a cigarette will make us feel better now, and we’re literally fighting our own selves just to resist the urge to smoke. 

The energy and stress involved in trying not to have a cigarette when you’re trying to quit is incredibly high, because the ‘chimp’ and ‘human’ parts of our brain are fighting each other for control. This willpower battle happens every time we would normally have a cigarette. It’s an exhausting mental process which takes its toll … and the more tired we are, the less willpower we have.

Our willpower weakens when we’re tired or hungry
We all know that we’re not at our best when we’re tired or hungry. This is because our limbic system is directly linked to our blood sugar. When our blood sugar drops, our ‘chimps’ get louder.

The “Sweet Future” Experiment:
In 2009, two academics from the University of South Dakota ran an experiment to expose the link between blood sugar levels and our ability to make good long-term decisions footnote 6. Using cans of diet and normal soda to manipulate the blood sugar levels of their test subjects, researchers asked a series of ‘future discounting’ questions (questions like “Would you prefer $120 tomorrow or $450 in 31 days?”). The subjects with high blood sugar levels tended to pick the option that worked out best over the long-term ($450 in 31 days), while those subjects with low blood sugars tended to go straight to the ‘immediate gratification’ option ($120 tomorrow). 

The Sweet Future experiment proved that — when our blood sugar levels drop — our chimp takes charge of our decisions. We can’t access the ‘human’ side of our brains as effectively, and choices which are good in the short term and bad in the long term look more appealing to us. 

How to boost your willpower reserves
Blood sugar is a hard thing for many of us to understand, let alone manage on a day-to-day basis. So, outside of a good diet, what are our other options? What else can we do to strengthen our powers of self-control? 

As it turns out, exercise and sleep play a big role. In her book “The Willpower Instinct”, self-control expert Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. explains what good sleep and exercise actually do to our brains: 

Sleep Repairs Brain Function
When we don’t get enough sleep, “...we are more susceptible to stress, cravings and temptation”. The good news for quitters is that you don’t need to get eight hours every night to improve our willpower — every little helps. Dr McGonigal says that “some studies show that a single good night’s sleep restores brain function to an optimal level … catching up on the weekend can help replenish your willpower.

Exercise Makes Our Brains Bigger
Exercise has a direct impact on our brain’s capacity for self-control, because it builds our prefrontal cortex (the ‘human’ part of our brain). McGonigal found that “...when neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter — brain cells — and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.” 

So if we eat well, sleep well and exercise, we will have more willpower. But will a stronger prefrontal cortex and optimal blood sugar be enough? Can we really quit tobacco for good with willpower alone?

The best way to quit is with support from the NHS 
Public Health England say that the most effective way to quit cigarettes is to combine a stop smoking aid (patches, gum, vaping etc) with “expert behavioural support” (you can learn more on our recent article). The NHS operate local Stop Smoking clinics all over the UK, and help thousands of people stop smoking for good every week. You can find out more about the support options available to you on the NHS Quit Smoking portal. 

Remember that quitting tobacco always takes a certain amount of self-control, whatever path you choose to take. Our advice to new quitters is to get in touch with your local NHS Stop Smoking Service. It’s a free service, and you’re three times as likely to quit successfully with their help.

We hope this article gives you a little insight into how willpower actually works. If you’ve struggled to stick to your quitting goals over the past few weeks, don’t be too hard on yourself. Quitting is hard, but it can be done. Both Gareth and I have managed it, and if we can do it, so can you!