A new iPhone app could boost the chances of quitting smoking by as much as 15%. Prior university research found that crushing cigarettes in a virtual world [PDF] improved patient commitment to quitting. The new gaming app, Nicot, allows patients to take this virtual world of cigarette crushing glory wherever they want.
By app standards, the game is pretty rudimentary: The visuals have a late-’90s polygon feel and the controls are awkward. With a first-person perspective, gamers guide their virtual selves, represented by a oddly proportioned dangling right arm, through what looks a mix of an 19th-century British town and a medieval kingdom. Two virtual control sticks, one for head movement and the other for walking direction, take a bit getting used to, even for veterans of console controllers. Players are challenged to grab and crush magically floating cigarettes (by tapping the device) before time runs out.
While the researchers who conducted the original randomized trial are still unaware of why, exactly, a virtual environment increases commitment, two of their hypothesis stand out. One, investing the time to play a (largely boring) game helps convince users how much quitting actually means to them. Investing time and effort to crush virtual cigarettes,” noted the report, “might boost people’s motivation to quit smoking.” Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance, when one’s actions cause changes in attitude.
Typically, we may think decisions work in the reverse order: People hold a belief and then act on it. In cognitive dissonance, we are secretly manipulated by the actions we take. For instance, after someone struggles with a decision to buy an expensive car, they might convince themselves of how much they really enjoy it on the drive home. The mental gymnastics helps move us into a serene state of certainty with our decisions. Thus, as people are playing the game, they have to justify the time spent and do so by convincing themselves how important quitting smoking is to them.
The second hypothesis is that rewarding behavior (i.e. winning the game) associates the act of quitting with a positive feeling. So, in the micro-moments of a decision of whether to light up, it is easier for users to imagine themselves happier in the future if they physically restrain themselves from smoking.