|Professor Anthony Rauhut runs mice through a nicotine-associated environment - a chamber with three rooms.
Let’s climb inside your head. Do you do anything that you know is dangerous?
Do you smoke or neglect to exercise? Do you live in a place that is flood, fire or earthquake prone? Maybe you swim with sharks, hike Everest, practice unsafe sex or jaywalk?
You know the facts. You read the newspapers and the warning labels.
But you do it anyway.
That’s what Associate Professor of Psychology Marie Helweg-Larsen wants to know.
“I want to understand why people do stupid things that they know they shouldn’t do,” she says.
Helweg-Larsen has explored how certain people—smokers, ultralight-aircraft pilots, domestic-violence victims and people with hypertension—perceive risk. She investigates how people react to an unplanned pregnancy, HIV infection or injury in an earthquake.
Risk is a topic that is capturing the interest of science and the general public. The cover story by Jeffrey Kluger in the Dec. 4, 2006, issue of TIME magazine was “Why We Worry about the Wrong Things: The Psychology of Risk.”
“We wring our hands,” Kluger writes, “over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.”
Helweg-Larsen says risk perception is complicated by many factors, partly because there is a voice inside our heads that’s constantly busy negotiating, justifying, defending and double-dealing.
“We understand that bad things will happen,” she says. “But not to us. It’s called optimistic bias.”
Helweg-Larsen says this kind of thinking involves rose-colored glasses. “People tend to underestimate their own risk in comparison to others,” she says. “A smoker may think, ‘I know other people will die horrible deaths from this, but I won’t.’ It’s a self-exempting process.”
Perceived control is another handy tool for those of us who feel like we’re above the laws of nature—and physics. When one race-car driver crashes, another thinks it’ll never happen to him because he’s a better driver; he has control.
And we practice compensation behaviors. “College students are good at this,” Helweg-Larsen says. “The ones who smoke compensate for the risk by saying they will quit soon. Or they’ll never get lung cancer because they exercise. Do they really believe that?”
The reasons for all of these mental gymnastics might involve internal and external forces—a list that includes cultural moralization, addiction and depression.
Helweg-Larsen says culture comes into play when an activity (like smoking) is evaluated on moral properties.
“There is a moral superiority about smoking in the United States,” she says. “There is a cultural idea here that smoking and smokers are bad.”
In a study of Bosnian refugees in the Carlisle/Harrisburg area, Helweg-Larsen and Lucia Stancioff ’06 found that the more acculturated the refugees were to U.S. culture the more likely they were to view smoking as dangerous.
“So thinking that smoking is risky is something that appears to be taught in a cultural context,” she says.
In Helweg-Larsen’s native Denmark, smoking is seen as a choice more than a moral issue. Therefore, cultural perceptions about smoking and smokers are startlingly different from those in the United States. For example, Danes believe to a greater extent than Americans that smoking is a private matter, that
doctors exaggerate the dangers of smoking and that smoking does not make others uncomfortable.
“In Denmark, believe it or not, nonsmokers are concerned that anti-smoking legislation might infringe on the rights of smokers,” she says. “In addition, Danish smokers deny their own lung-cancer risks more than smokers do in the United States. In one study I found that the more U.S. smokers smoked, the greater they saw their personal risk. But among Danish smokers there was no relationship between smoking frequency and personal risk. The Danish smokers didn’t think that more smoking meant greater risk.”
To continue her research, Helweg-Larsen is applying for a $150,000 grant to study how people construct “risk narratives” in the context of culture and how risk perception is related to cultural moralization and smoking cessation. If awarded, she will take Dickinson students to Denmark in 2009 through Denmark’s International Studies Program in Copenhagen.
Also affecting risky behavior is addiction—together with its partner in crime, depression. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, risks associated with the “tobacco pandemic” are causing an estimated 438,000 premature deaths (or about one of every five deaths) annually in the United States.
Anthony Rauhut, a psychology department colleague of Helweg-Larsen and member of the neuroscience program, researches the incredibly complicated processes of smoking cessation.
“People continue to smoke and have a difficult time quitting,” Rauhut says, “partly because of environmental cues. The sight or smell of a cigarette has become associated with the addictive agent, nicotine. People crave a cigarette when they smell a cigarette much in the same way that Pavlov’s dog salivated when it heard a bell previously associated with meat.”
Rauhut and his students, with the support of a $174,888 grant from the National Institutes of Health, study how the smoking-cessation agent, bupropion (Zyban™), alters the ability of environmental cues associated with nicotine to control a mouse’s behavior.
Using a chamber with three rooms, each a different color, Rauhut’s mice are able to show their preferences.
“Mice will learn to associate a specific environment, like a black chamber, with nicotine,” Rauhut says, “much in the same way that Pavlov’s dog associated a bell with food. But instead of salivating at the sound of a bell, mice will spend time in the nicotine-associated environment. This is called a conditioned place preference.”
Using this experiment, Rauhut and his students examine how bupropion alters the preference produced by nicotine—or the aversion produced by nicotine withdrawal.
“We understand that bupropion helps with smoking cessation, but we don’t know why,” Rauhut says. “Once we understand the mechanism, then perhaps scientists can develop new drugs, which might someday benefit huge numbers of people.
“Oftentimes undergraduates want to become doctors because they are motivated to help people,” he adds. “One of my goals of having students work with me in this kind of research is allowing them to see how they can make huge contributions in a field like medicine—and do it in a way they may not have imagined.”