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Cue-Induced Smoking Urges Deplete Cigarette Smokers’ Self-Control Resources



Exposure to smoking-related cues leads to increased urge to smoke in regular cigarette smokers and resisting these urges requires considerable self-control.


Adopting a resource depletion model, two studies tested the hypothesis that resisting smoking urges depletes self-control resources.


Adopting a within-participants randomized cross-over design, participants (study 1, N = 19; study 2, N = 32) were exposed to smoking-related (study 1: smoking images; study 2: cigarette cue-exposure task) and neutral (study 1: neutral images; study 2: drinking-straw task) cues with presentation order randomized. After each cue set, participants completed self-control tasks (study 1: handgrip task; study 2: handgrip and Stroop tasks), performance on which constituted dependent measures of self-control.


Self-control task performance was significantly impaired when exposed to smoking-related cues compared to neutral cues. No significant presentation-order effects, or interaction effects between stimulus and presentation order, were found.


Findings corroborate our hypothesis that resisting smoking urges depletes cigarette smokers’ self-control resources and suggests that self-control capacity is governed by a limited resource.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    We omitted the data of one participant from the original sample (N = 20) as the data were incomplete as she opted to withdraw from the experiment early.

  2. 2.

    In reality, the cigarettes in each pile were from the same brand and therefore identical in order to control for brand preference.

  3. 3.

    The protocols for the cigarette and drinking-straw evaluation (cue exposure) tasks are available from the first author on request.

  4. 4.

    We also tested for differences across smoking and neutral cue exposure on critical single items from the brief Questionnaire of Smoking Urges scale shown to have equal sensitivity to abstinence and reliability to the full scale. Specifically, we found significant differences on item 5 “All I want right now is a cigarette” (study 1: smoking image exposure M = 2.58, SE = 0.30, neutral image exposure M = 2.00, SE = 0.24, t(18) = 3.64, p = .002, d = 1.67; study 2: smoking cue exposure M = 3.41, SE = 0.28, neutral cue exposure, M = 2.13, SE = 0.18, t(31) = 5.57, p < .001, d = 1.97) and item 6 “I have an urge for a cigarette” (Study 1: smoking image exposure M = 3.68, SE = 0.45, neutral image exposure, M = 3.11, SE = 0.41, t(18) = 2.25, p = .037, d = 1.03; Study 2: smoking cue exposure M = 4.63, SE = 0.26, neutral cue exposure, M = 3.00, SE = 0.28, t(31) = 7.59, p < .001, d = 2.68).

  5. 5.

    We adjusted the time participants spent on the handgrip task after exposure to each image set for baseline strength by subtracting baseline handgrip duration from handgrip task duration after each image set. The more negative the scores, the greater the level of self-control resource depletion

  6. 6.

    We repeated the ANOVAs with Tobacco Dependence Screener scores as a covariate to control for tobacco dependence. The pattern of findings was identical to the analyses with Tobacco Dependence Screener scores excluded and there were no significant main or interaction effects for Tobacco Dependence Screener scores on the handgrip (both studies) and Stroop (study 2) dependent variables. We therefore report the ANOVA results with the Tobacco Dependence Screener scores excluded.


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Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflict of interest to disclose.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin S. Hagger B.A. (Hons)., Dip. Psych., Ph.D..

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Hagger, M.S., Leaver, E., Esser, K. et al. Cue-Induced Smoking Urges Deplete Cigarette Smokers’ Self-Control Resources. ann. behav. med. 46, 394–400 (2013).

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  • Strength model
  • Self-regulation
  • Tobacco
  • Smoking urge
  • Dual-task procedure