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Helping smokers to quit smoking is one of the effective ways to reduce smoking-related health, economic, and social burdens. Si Wen studied the potential of a new intervention, a cognitive training called Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM). CBM aims to directly change biases in cognitive processes, such as biased attention towards certain cues in the environment. Wen concludes that in its current form CBM does not lead to effective behavioural change and substantial modification of the training procedure and design are needed. Wednesday 22 December she will defend her thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

a woman is resisting a cigarette

In the past decade, a new type of cognitive training, called Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM), has received increasing attention as a potential (add-on) intervention for the treatment of addiction. CBM includes a variety of computerized training elements aimed at interfering with attentional, evaluative, or behavioral processes triggered by substance-related cues in the environment, like seeing someone else smoking. To test if CBM could help people with smoking cessation, Si Wen conducted three intervention studies among general healthy Dutch and Chinese smokers.

Testing two varieties of web-based CMB

Wen investigated whether combining two varieties of web-based Cognitive Bias Modification, being Attentional Bias Modification (AtBM) and Approach Bias Modification (ApBM), would increase the effects of CBM on smoking cessation. Attentional Bias Modification aims to reduce or change smokers attentional bias toward smoking-related cues. During the training, participants are trained to consistently shift their attention away from smoking-related pictures and attend to neutral pictures. Approach Bias Modification aims to reduce or change smokers’ approach bias toward smoking-related cues. During the training, participants are trained to consistently avoid smoking pictures and approach neutral pictures.

No support for the use of Cognitive Bias Modification

Wen finds no support for the potential effects of CBM as a tool for helping people quit smoking. ‘The findings of my studies did not support the use of Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) as a smoking cessation intervention in general healthy smokers in its current form’, concludes Wen. To translate findings on CBM in clinical settings into a viable and effective behaviour change intervention in the real world, substantial modification of the training procedure and core design is needed she states. 

‘Given the fact that quitting smoking is difficult and that CBM can be easily administrated online at low costs, smoking-CBM could be clinically relevant even if the added effect was small. Moreover, given that helping smokers to quit smoking is also difficult, efforts aimed at improving the effectiveness of smoking interventions may be worth trying. But we should also remain open to the possibility that CBM may still not translate into an effective behavior change intervention for smoking, even with extensive modifications', concludes Wen.

PhD Details

Si Wen, 2021, ‘How hard is it (to help smokers)  to quit smoking? Measuring and modifying smoking-related  cognitive biases in smokers’. Supervisor: prof. Reinout Wiers, co-supervisor: Dr Helle Larsen.

Time and location

Wednesday 22 December 10.00, Agnietenkapel Amsterdam.