How is smoking like a game of Chinese Whispers?

When I was a child I would often play Chinese Whispers with my friends. The game required a group of us to form a circle and then someone would begin the game by whispering a phrase of their choice into the person next to them’s ear. As each whisper was passed around the circle, the phrase became more and more muddled; frequently losing key sections and gaining new, false ones. So, when the phrase was finally told to the whole group at the end it was clear that the truth had been misplaced along the way.

Childhood games like this are helpful in illustrating an individual’s cognitive map. A cognitive map is a type of mental representation which allows an individual to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment. Introduced by Edward Tolman in 1948, the cognitive map is similar to a game of Chinese Whispers being played out in an individual’s brain.

It illustrates a notion that most theories are interpreted and utilised differently to how they were originally intended.  The idea, experience or opinion someone proclaims is only accurately understood when it is first uttered or written. After that, it becomes contaminated and construed by administrations, commentators and business tycoons that seek to promote their own agenda. This is especially true in a modern society. Due to the different environments that individuals have advanced through, the comprehension of data is never an objective affair. Education and exposure to different lifestyles will inevitably tear people in different directions of understanding.

So, whilst our preferences are shaped by our environment, they are also affected by the actions of others. Indeed, this creates a nexus of manipulation which is complex and unclear. Returning to our game of Chinese Whispers, the final phrase is shaped by our own subjective ability to hear what has been said to us and, to faithfully deliver what has been said to the next person along. However, we are unable to influence the plans of others, whether they be sinister or not, if they choose to change the original phrase. This situation is similar to that of our own cognitive map which is, at times, not entirely ours to control.


All aspects of human life – politics, health, morality, and religious teachings – involve the manipulation of one’s cognitive map. This, in turn, serves to create collective cognition within society. One of the most fruitful and interesting narratives to explore, with reference to collective and individual cognition, is that of smoking. The top-down portrayal of cigarettes has deeply affected whether individuals have decided to consume cigarettes or not; it has affected their cognitive understanding of the effects of smoking cigarettes.

In the 1880s, automated cigarette-making machines heralded a complete transformation of the tobacco industry. Cigarettes, previously handmade and expensive, had captured a tiny portion of the British market. By drastically reducing production costs, these machines heralded a new era of mass production and cigarettes went mainstream. While excessive smoking was discouraged, its apparent benefits as a stress-reducing pleasure outweighed major concerns. By the end of the First World War – a war frequently remembered in posterity by images of soldiers smoking cigarettes – cigarette sales exceeded those of pipe tobacco. And so, cigarettes became part of everyday consumption.

But by 1950, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill had published a report in the British Medical Journal. Their evidence, produced between 1952 and 1954, suggested a strong link between smoking and the formation of lung cancer. And yet, marketing directors of brands such as Lucky Strike and Marlboro simply redesigned their advertising campaigns to counter, and incorporate the information provided to the public by Hill and Doll’s health report. Indeed, popular Netflix show, Mad Men, shows how easily the public perception of cigarettes can be perverted by cleverly designed advertising campaigns.

It was as though a team of fat, bearded capitalists had interrupted an innocent and constructive game of Chinese Whispers by hijacking the whisper and telling a completely new narrative. When the whisper eventually appeared at the other side it was not a valid warning about the dangers of cigarettes and was instead an advertising campaign which obfuscated valid medical reports and enticed the consumer even further. All of this, quite obviously, in the pursuit of profit.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco lobbied for years against health campaigners, with considerable success. Both the Government and the courts favoured the tobacco industry in policy and litigation and it was not until fifty-two years later, in 2007, when public health industries prevailed through legislation which outlawed smoking in public spaces.

The aforementioned is a historic example that illustrates a distorted disease of propaganda and literature that has infested societies cognitive map like the black plague. Though the effects were there to be seen early on, the truth was masked – apocryphally told from ear to ear- and not made clear to the public until years later.


Similarly, but perhaps more ominous for the entire population, is the teaching of economics at institutions of education. The teaching of economics in recent years seems to be portrayed ostensibly as a science. However, unbeknown to most, there are nine schools of economic thought each with their own ‘scientific’ methods and theories: Keynesian, Neoclassical, the Marxist School, Classical, Development, Austrian, The (Neo-) Schumpeterian, the Institutional School and the Behaviourist School.

Cambridge Professor, Ha-Joon Chang, argues in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, that economic degree programmes are highly trained in mathematics and statistics, but offer very narrow theoretical perspectives and are ignorant of real-world economies. Indeed, Neo-Classical economic ideas, such as the ones used in the Western World, dominate in our institutions of education, at the expense of other economic schools of thought.

I would argue that the wide expanse of economic science has been twisted and turned as it has made its way through the collective cognition of society. What began as a fruitful opportunity to explore numerous schools of thought and economic ideas, has appeared as a narrow and dogmatic understanding of economics. The phrases that appear at the end of the circle speak only of financialization of the economy, the institution of neoliberal policies and a progression towards libertarianism.

Unfortunately, the continued consensus that neoclassical economics is a science leaves the ordinary man reluctant to understand or learn why his pockets remain penniless, whilst more students learn the technical aspects of private enterprise, more talented individuals join a bank and continue the same policies that lead to asset bubbles, increased consumerism and, the development of an economic system made on financial speculation rather than productivity. Our cognitive map has led to individuals being egotistical in increasing their personal wealth and never questioning the strengths or weaknesses of economic policies on a societal scale.


At present, it seems the vast proportion of our population is kept in the dark and are told what economic policies will benefit them, similar to when they were prevented from knowing the truth about smoking. The personal effects of smoking may resonate with an individual more but the long-term effects of poor economic policy can be detrimental to one’s opportunities, lifestyle and his overriding place in society.

The crux of this argument is not to say which economic ideology is the most suitable. Instead, I want to highlight that whether we have a choice in deciding, or whether we are simply instructed from a governance of Chinese Whispers, reform and assimilation are key when even our educational institutions – the private and lobbied universities that are seen as our trusted track of progression – are inducing one’s cognitive map.

We did not implement a sensible smoking policy until the voting public became knowledgeable enough about it. It is imperative that we have a heuristic approach to economics, as we did with same-sex relationships, racism and even democracy – the political ideology which underpins our free and open society.

Because until you understand anything in its entirety, can you truly become liberated from it?

Written by George Dodd

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