In 2012 the U.S. will join dozens of nations around the world in labeling cigarette packages with large photographs of diseased organs, amputated limbs and other gruesome images. Previous research has borne out the idea that when people see images of cigarette-induced ailments, they are reminded of their own mortality. But a study presented in May at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science suggests that reminders of mortality might not always have the desired effect.

Jamie Arndt, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, had student smokers complete questionnaires designed to induce either thoughts of their own mortality or thoughts about failing an exam. Then the researchers offered the students a cigarette and measured every person’s smoking intensity—each puff’s volume, flow and duration. Students who did not smoke often indeed smoked with less passion after being reminded of their own mortality, as compared with the light smok­ers who read about failing an exam. As Arndt explains, the infrequent smokers may have been responding to thoughts of death by trying to reduce their own vulnerability. But students who were heavy smokers reacted to thoughts of death by taking even harder drags on their cigarettes. Arndt suggests they might have been sub­conscious­ly attempting to dispel a negative mood with an enjoyable activity. Although the reason is unclear, the finding suggests that the psychology involved in smoking and thinking about death is more complicated than previously assumed. Therefore, graphic warning labels on cigarettes might not have the intended effect on everyone who sees them.