Psychology department studies effects of nicotine

Researchers from the Mercyhurst Psychology De- partment have taken on the challenge of understanding one of the biggest killers on Earth – tobacco.

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills an estimated 6 million people each year, making it “one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced,” as well as one of the most preventable.

Mercyhurst’s Professor of Psychology Matthew Weaver, Ph.D., and senior psychology major Jessica Braymiller have been working on a study that, according to Weaver, attempts “to understand how people respond to stimuli related to drugs.” The drug in this instance is nicotine.

Braymiller started the experiment in the spring of 2013. She began it as a research project required of all junior psychology majors and has continued this year as a senior research practicum and research assistant to Weaver.

The flyer posted around the Mercyhurst campus calls for participants who are heavy smokers, advertising that “You can earn an Amazon Gift Card…Just by Smoking a Cigarette!”

The essence of the experiment is to test how smokers respond in various situations. For example, if a student smoker is walking by an area he or she commonly associates with smoking, the experiment attempts to test whether he or she would have reacted differently if he or she had not passed that particular area.

“One of the great things about science, or one of the bad things about science, depending on where you lean, is that it leads to more questions,” Weaver said.
Weaver, who was honored with the B.F. Skinner Foundation’s Early Career Research Award last year, said that he has enjoyed working with students his past year and a half at Mercyhurst.

“This is the population I am interested in. It is a time when we’re changing. To me, it is a moral obligation to find out how adolescents respond to drugs,” he said.

Still, like many psychological studies, there is a risk that participants will abuse the system. Regarding the possibility of students taking up smoking just for the $15 gift card promised to smokers who participate in the study, Weaver said he “hope[s] they’re not that strapped for 15 bucks.”

“That’s a worry with anything,” Weaver said. “I would hope that someone would stay away from smoking.”

He added that there is a simple questionnaire that can tell whether a student is truly dependent on nicotine.

Braymiller said that she has run into this problem during the study.

“I have had someone who would say ‘I used to smoke, but I quit, so I came back,’” Braymiller said.“…That kind of skews the data a little bit.”

Asked if the study still permits a student who has relapsed on nicotine to continue with the experiment, Braymiller said “It depends on how far they are into the experiment. If they have done a lot of it, I have to pay them. I can’t get around that.”

“It is kind of the honor system,” she continued. “I would hope that people would not do that.”