Is it helpful to offer yourself cash and prizes as incentives to not smoke?
I don’t discourage clients from considering this angle if they bring it up — they are probably at that moment focused on the dollar cost of smoking, but these are often people who don’t have a cash flow problem to begin with. When they calculate that they could “save” $5 to $10 a day, they might imagine putting that same cash in a jar every day and saving up for a nice vacation or other meaningful reward after six months or a year. I always say, “Oh, that sounds great! Where would you want to go?”
The thing is I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve successfully done this to stop smoking.
Imagine that you have an empty cherry jar at home and you’ve promised yourself you will put five or a ten dollars into it every single day for a year. How long do you predict it will be before you skip a day or take a dollar out? Three months? Five?
No matter how inspired you feel while ceremoniously placing that empty jar in its honorary spot (maybe you’ll get creative and make a label!), no matter how reverently you drop in that first bill — the real likelihood is that within a week or two you’ll be short on cash one day and promise to catch up later, or find yourself reaching in to cover a totally non-luxurious cash expense.
No problem, It’s human nature. But — If your success at avoiding the smoking habit is being anchored by your success at maintaining the cherry jar habit — the minute you start re-negotiating with that cherry jar you’re not very far from calling off the whole deal and rationalizing “just one” smoke.
More often, I think most smokers realize that the money they’ve been spending every day on the small luxury of cigarettes is actually needed and better spent on other weekly and monthly expenses, and that whatever money they don’t spend on cigarettes isn’t likely to accumulate as a pile of cash in some dusty corner of their annual budget.
Another version of “cash rewards for nonsmoking” that many smokers are familiar with is the idea of making a significant wager with another smoker. Both agree to quit at the same time and whoever smokes first loses the bet, so the more successful nonsmoker will be financially rewarded for having presumably superior willpower.
There are two common problems with this approach.
One is that winning the bet removes any financial motive for the winner to continue nonsmoking, your only requirement is to hold out one minute longer than the loser. The other problem, which I’ve personally experienced more than once, is that such bets are usually made between close friends in hopes of helping each other succeed. To win that bet (which is usually set at a meaningfully high dollar amount), would create a serious rift in a social relationship. Both times I’ve tried this approach (once with a relative and another time with a group of friends) the end result was that all parties agreed to nullify the wager by pre-arranged simultaneous relapse. Everybody fails, nobody pays!
There are some studies and current public health programs that explore the incorporation of small value “gift card” reward strategies for tobacco cessation, the amount is typically $20 or $25. Results suggest that this may be helpful with early tobacco prevention for teenagers, when they are placed in a position to choose between tobacco use and being able to afford a popular retail item. Gift cards can also help encourage low-income adult smokers to initiate engagement with public health programs. But there is no scientific basis for suggesting that a smallish, one-time cash reward would have any lasting effect on long-term behavior change.
Meanwhile, there is a great deal of psychological research comparing the relative strength of intrinsic (internally derived) and extrinsic (externally imposed) motivation. In one study of this type, it was observed that children who derive personal enjoyment from drawing will happily spend unstructured free time producing multiple drawn images, one after another. When adults acknowledged and appreciated a child’s intrinsic enjoyment of the activity, the drawing output tended to increase. However, when extrinsic motivation was established by stating that the child’s drawings were “very good” and offering to pay the child a dollar each for any new drawings, they observed a reduction in overall time spent drawing and a tendency to produce fewer drawings before shifting attention to other activities.
A financial incentive to not smoke represents an attempt to manipulate behavior through an externally imposed value system — one that, by definition, is not meaningfully related to the actual merits of being a nonsmoker, In fact the external approach assumes there are no intrinsic merits, viewing the intended outcome as hard work to be compensated.
Without question, most adults are familiar with this structure as a socially imposed way of keeping attention focused on particular goals. Smokers who choose this approach to stopping tobacco are most likely adults with solid prior history of setting and achieving goals that involve delaying gratification to get long term payoffs. Higher education, career advancement and financial independence are most often attained this way — keeping one’s eye on the prize while continuing to make incremental daily sacrifices.
This approach may have value for pursuing goals related to weight control, because a change in body mass index requires continuous proactive behavior change. Every day, the eater will still need to eat, but must make regular conscious incremental sacrifices in order to attain the desired result. The goal-state cannot be experienced at all until those old eating habits have been successfully modified over time, and new eating habits have been gradually introduced.
With regard to smoking, however, it is well understood that the most effective method is abrupt cessation and permanent abstinence. Attempts to “taper” smoking behavior incrementally most often result in failure. A smoker who is “Trying to Quit” by any method that aims to prevent current smoking by offering to reward daily abstinence with future prizes is continuing to frame the whole endeavor as a kind of punishment where smoking is desirable, but deprivation must be endured until a distant goal is earned through daily sacrifice. This perspective emphasizes extrinsic and unrelated rewards to be gained by surviving an ordeal, and is based entirely on the notion that reward is necessary because there are no intrinsic values to be found in the change itself.
Beyond the necessity of total abstinence, the most important determining factor of success with nonsmoking is the attitude of the person not smoking. When a nonsmoker perceives and values nonsmoking itself as the immediately attained and sufficiently fulfilling outcome of the behavior change, the complete transition is usually easy and immediate. We seldom experience struggle or difficulty when we are actually doing and getting what perceive that we want. There is no need to punish, purchase, bribe or reward when every awareness of nonsmoking confirms that the prize is always being received right now. The reward is continuous and continuously granted at all times because it is 100% intrinsic to the simple status of being a nonsmoker.