ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (4): 654-663.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00654

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Smokers’ “bulletproof vest”: The formation mechanism and interventions of self-exempting beliefs

CHEN Haide, YANG Yixing, ZHENG Enjin, FAN Yumeng, GAO Lingfeng()   

  1. School of Psychology, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua 321004, China
  • Received:2023-01-14 Online:2024-04-15 Published:2024-02-29
  • Contact: GAO Lingfeng


Self-exempting beliefs are defined as beliefs that individuals who perform a certain behavior can use to exempt themselves from risk despite possessing information about the risk of that behavior. The self-reported beliefs of smokers have a significant impact on smoking cessation and smoking behavior. Previous studies have used cognitive dissonance theory to explain the process by which smokers develop self-exempting beliefs. However, these studies have overlooked the specificity of self-exempting beliefs. Smokers’ self-exempting beliefs primarily involve individuals’ belief that they are exempt from the harms of smoking. Smokers who maintain other types of rationalization beliefs about smoking argue against the view that smoking is harmful. However, smokers who hold self-exempting beliefs focus on themselves. They may acknowledge the objective fact that smoking is harmful to health, but they seek more evidence to deny that they are at risk f smoking. Through this approach, smokers alleviate the cognitive dissonance caused by the inconsistency between their smoking behavior and their perception of the dangers of smoking.

This paper proposes a three-stage model for the formation of self-exempting beliefs among smokers. This model involves three processes: cognitive dissonance and rationalization, highlighting self-specificity, and belief competition and stability. Specifically, self-exempting beliefs first develop through the cognitive dissonance of smokers, which drives their rationalization process. Subsequently, smokers adopt various forms of rationalizations. They consider themselves unique compared to others and choose self-exempting beliefs for rationalization to alleviate the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. Finally, after repeated verification, self-exempting beliefs such as "I can avoid the harm of smoking" are solidified; they become habitual and "bulletproof". Based on these phenomena, interventions for smokers' self-exempting beliefs can be implemented through measures such as hypocrisy induction, motivational interviewing, and question-based smoking warning messages. According to the characteristics of cognitive dissonance and rationalization, interventions involving hypocrisy induction and motivational interviewing can help smokers maintain harmful cognitions about smoking and change their smoking behavior. Based on the process of highlighting self-specificity, question-based smoking warning messages can help smokers enhance their perception of the harm of smoking.

Future research should focus on the following four aspects. First, it is necessary to conduct localized research on self-exempting beliefs based on the characteristics of Chinese smokers. Considering the specificity and cultural differences involved in self-exempting beliefs, it is important to conduct more empirical research on self-exempting beliefs in China. In addition, researchers need to develop localized tools for measuring self-exempting beliefs. Second, future research should explore the mechanism by which smokers' self-exempting beliefs affect their willingness to quit smoking. Researchers should consider potential moderating and mediating variables, such as expected outcomes, identity, or cultural values. Cognitive neural technology could be used to further explore the relationship between self-exempting beliefs and smoking cessation behavior. Third, it is necessary to examine the influencing factors in the formation of self-exempting beliefs, which can help researchers intervene in these beliefs. By exploring the role of individual characteristics and environmental factors, the theoretical framework for the formation of self-exempting beliefs could be further improved. Finally, intervention measures targeting the self-exempting beliefs of smokers should be developed, and their effectiveness should be tested in the real world. Researchers can combine multiple interventions to encourage smokers to quit smoking, such as using virtual reality technology to increase smokers' awareness of the dangers of smoking. For policy-makers, it is necessary to adjust smoking control policies based on the characteristics of self-exemption beliefs.

Key words: smokers, rationalization beliefs, self-exempting beliefs, smoking cessation

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