Behavioral Economics and Smoking for 11-year-olds

OK, this is going to seem like an odd story. Please bear with me for a minute, and you will see why it is relevant to customer strategy.

I was 11 years old

Freshly arrived in Seattle, I was in the 7th grade at Morgan Junior High. It was 1966. Yes, I was the youngest (and smallest) in my class. Yes, this is when I discovered mass showers after gym class, but that is a whole other unpleasant story. This unpleasant story is about smoking.

Presumably, it was a required program

I suppose a directive had been issued that suggested we were all at risk of becoming young smokers. Thinking about the year, I suppose the tobacco industry was already starting to adjust. Camel had stopped advertising that its cigarettes were the ones doctors preferred. (Look it up on YouTube.) The general population was starting to think that there might actually be a problem. In any case, one of our teachers showed up with a cigarette, a lighter, a vacuum cleaner, and a white handkerchief. She lit the cigarette, then ‘smoked’ it through the handkerchief, while moving it around, using the vacuum cleaner. I have no doubt that she gave us all sorts of numbers and other health information. I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is that when the vacuum cleaner had finished her work, she held up the handkerchief and said “Do you really want that in your lungs?” The handkerchief was disgusting.

The effect

There were 900 students at Morgan Junior High. I don’t remember seeing anyone smoke. There were rumors of kids smoking what I will call ‘off-brand cigarettes’ in the woods behind the school, but I never witnessed that. I suppose it is another subject in any case.

The contrast

At age 13, our parents decided they had advanced their careers as much as they wanted to in the USA, and moved back to Ireland. (13 was my age, not theirs.) I found myself in ‘The Bish’ in Galway. While the most striking thing about the school was that there were no girls, I quickly became aware of another fact: about half of my class smoked. There was a small store at the closest bus stop to the school. Kids could buy individual cigarettes. The family next door to our house had a boy of about 10 who both smoked and swore. (Another phenomenon that was rare in my part of Seattle.)

The point

The point is why I did not smoke. I had had an emotional, intuitive reaction to the disgusting handkerchief in Seattle. I can still see it. I don’t remember any of the other facts our teacher told us. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman talks about ‘System 1’ which is emotional, intuitive and ‘System 2’, our more rational selves. When System 1 jumps to a conclusion, System 2 normally takes a nap and does not engage. (This could explain a lot of recent political results, but that is once again another story.) System 1 worked for me and smoking. It can work for you when communicating  what you want others to know about strategy, or when requesting funding. System 1 discussions are far more memorable than System 2. When you want to persuade customers or your company leaders to do something, lead with the personal, emotional System 1 argument. Follow it up with System 2 rationalization. Don’t do it the other way around. It just does not work.


As always, your feedback is welcome below or by emailing me at We have of course worked a lot of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology into our customer strategy books, which you can find on Amazon.