Personalized antismoking messages might be more effective than generalized health messages because they induce an emotional response, according to a brain imaging study by University of Michigan psychologists led by Hannah Faye Chua, PhD.

Researchers have known for several years that health messages that take into account people’s individual circumstances and personal choices are better at curbing unhealthy behaviors, but they didn’t know why.

So Chua and colleagues recruited 91 smokers who professed a desire to quit and scanned their brains using fMRI while the smokers read various antismoking messages. Some messages were accompanied by specifics about the smokers’ personal histories: “You have been smoking for 12 years,” “You smoke when you are stressed” and so on. Others were generic, such as, “Some people are tempted to smoke to control their weight or hunger.” A control group read messages unrelated to smoking or health.

Next, the researchers had the participants answer yes or no to statements such as “I am shy” or “I am athletic.”

Comparing the brain images from the smoking messages with images from when the participants’ responded to the yes-no statements, the researchers found that the same brain areas activated when participants read a personalized message as when they answered yes to a self-referential question. These statements activated the medial prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotions, and the posterior cingulate cortex, which helps us analyze our current situation and also interpret how others perceive us.

A follow-up experiment found that the personalized message group was more likely to have quit smoking four months later. The researchers reported their results in Nature Neuroscience (Vol. 14, No. 4).

Psychologists working to help smokers quit, whether it’s in individual therapy or as part of larger smoking-cessation programs, might consider tailoring their health messages to people’s individual circumstances, Chua says.

—M. Price