How Graphic Warnings Work on Smokers’ Brains
Whether they think so or not, images of cancer-ravaged body parts, along with no-nonsense warning text, definitely have an effect on the brains of the smokers they are trying to reach.
A study conducted at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, DC indicated that graphic images spur activity in areas of the brain associated with decision-making, emotion and memory.
The study team showed 19 current smokers aged 18 to 30 a series of images of either graphic warning labels, known as GWLs (consisting of a graphic and text), text-only warning labels or plain cigarette packaging for four seconds each.
The GWLs included an image of an open mouth with rotted teeth and a tumor on the lower lip, for example, alongside some text that said: “WARNING: cigarettes cause cancer.”
The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of each participant as they viewed the warnings, allowing them to analyze brain activity. In addition, the subjects were asked to use a push-button control after viewing each image to rate how much each one made them want to quit smoking, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).
The results: GWLs were far and away the most effective message, outperforming text-only and plain packaging in motivating participants to quit smoking. What’s more, when the subjects viewed the GWLs, they demonstrated activity in certain areas of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain.
The amygdala responds to stimuli that are emotionally powerful, especially fear and disgust, which are emotions that often influence decision-making.