Review of Stromberg, "Collective Excitement and Lapse in Agency: Fostering an Appetite for Cigarettes"
by Zach Obaji
Peter Stromberg addresses cigarette smoking among young adults among American colleges and universities in chapter 12 of The Encultured Brain. Although smoking is ill-advised due to numerous medical reasons, Stromberg provides reasons as to why young adults pick up cigarettes in the first place. At the beginning of the chapter, the lapse in agency is a concept that refers “to the basic awareness that one us author of one’s own actions” (Stromberg, 316). Throughout the chapter, the lapse in agency among cigarette usage is explained further by different viewpoints: emotional arousal, pretend play, imitation, and rhythmic entrainment.
The chapter presents an ethnographical study from two universities to determine what factors attribute to early-phase tobacco use among first-year college students. Whether one comes from a family of smokers or non-smokers, cigarette usage appears to be most prevalent in social settings. One study shows that there is a higher correlation between attendance at social gatherings and cigarette usage (Stromberg, 323). Various substances are consumed at these types of social gatherings, and tobacco is often used in conjugation with alcohol, for example.
Imitation and rhythmic entrainment are factors that help explain the basis as to why cigarette usage occurs in these types of social gatherings among young adults. When others are seen smoking cigarettes at a party or other social gathering, the desire to imitate those individuals becomes heightened. The two central reasons behind imitation are due to the Western culture’s social history of smoking and the belief that “social history has imparted a certain kind of symbolic valence to cigarette smoking” (Stromberg, 324). Although the rates of tobacco use have declined, Stromberg argues that cigarettes still retain a strong association with the coolness factor and sexual desirability. In the case of imitation, cigarettes are used as a tool to blend in at social gatherings. Secondly, rhythmic entrainment is closely associated with imitation. In a broad sense, rhythmic entrainment is a way to follow the crowd. Rhythmic entrainment has an evolutionary basis to it, “mirror neuron systems evolved to facilitate more effective food acquisition among social primates” (Stromberg, 325). Aside from cigarette smoking, rhythmic entrainment can be seen when following dance movements to synchronize oneself to others when they follow the beat of a song. The desire for joint rhythmic activity is a “basic form of playful social cooperation” (Stromberg, 326).
Similar to imitation, the chapter delves into the idea of using cigarettes as a prop to promote pretend play. Pretend play involves the manipulation of an individual’s self-image to project a new identity that appears appealing to others in social settings. Intentional or not, pretend play and using cigarettes as a prop is caused by a lapse in agency. Collective effervescence is attributed to the “most important factor underlying the heightened sense of excitement people can feel in crowds is primitive emotional contagion” (Stromberg, 328). This emotional arousal leads to an autonomic nervous system response creating a heightened sense of arousal. Emotional arousal can lead to dissociation, especially when tobacco usage is combined with other psychoactive drugs including alcohol. In social gatherings like parties, dissociation elevates creating an amnesic effect that masks peripheral awareness.
Stromberg’s chapter provides a better understanding of how cigarettes are used as a domain of entertainment in social gatherings among college students in America. Although his ethnographical and qualitative study examined freshmen college students at two universities, the explanations within the chapter explain the evolutionary factors on how tobacco products are consumed in social gatherings. Since cigarettes contain the psychoactive stimulant, nicotine, the lapse in agency is exacerbated by other drugs such as alcohol. Following the actions of those around us in social settings is highly prevalent. Although the rates of traditional smoking involving the combustion of tobacco have decreased, it would be interesting to see how electronic cigarettes have evolved among college campuses. It is not uncommon to see a student use a Juul on his or her way to class. Electronic cigarettes appear to be used not only in social gatherings but also in other settings. It would be interesting to learn more about the newer nicotine delivery systems and to study the origins that cause the lapse in agency.