The Fallacy of Fear

Anita Huslin from the Washington Post has an article about the problem with motivating people to live healthier. The facet? Telling people that they live unhealthy lives, that certain foods will lead to health problems, that more exercise and less Play Station might extend life simply doesn’t work.

Is it possible that we’re missing a self-discipline gene? Unlikely, though recent research synthesized by the National Academy of Sciences suggests there may be combinations of genes and environmental factors that make it hard for some people to maintain control over their habits.

And every year, as if we had learned nothing from our past, we renew our vows to change. Then we crack open our wallets. In recent years: $63 billion on low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, low-calorie foods; more than $1 billion on smoking cessation products and programs; $46 billion on diet and fitness programs, drugs and surgeries. At the same time, the nation’s health-care industry spends hundreds of billions to treat preventable illnesses in a process that H.L. Mencken recognized decades ago: “The true aim of medicine,” he said, “is not to make men virtuous; it is to safeguard and rescue them from the consequences of their vices.”

In the end, what doctors and studies and experts have pointed out is that the thing that really helps to change behavior is something hard to measure but ultimately powerful.

Change comes from the heart, not the head.

She goes on to discuss both the problem and some of the ideas towards solutions.

The problem is twofold. She turns the phrase “As a motivator for personal change, fear is a poor performer.” I suspect this has evolutionary causes. Reacting to immediate threats – the rather grumpy lion looking for a snack – was evolutionarily far more important than worrying if your butt was getting too big. (Although considering the number of women people who ALWAYS stop in front of mirrors to check said butt (Does this make me look fat? No…you look fat no matter what you wear.) does seem to make this argument less strong than one might believe. Butt = evolutionary advantage? Hmm…) Realistically scientists have increasingly shown that long term threats with a reasonably high probability of occurrence (think dying in an automobile accident) tends to worry people less than low probability, high profile threats (terrorist attack or airplane crash).

The long term problems associated with bad habits is not an immediate threat and even having a short term scare isn’t enough to change the bad habits. As a haven’t-smoked-in-four-years smoker, I understand the mindset. For me the change didn’t come because I suddenly understood the long term threats involved. I was fully aware of those. For me the change was entirely mental. I just wanted to stop. I had had enough. Literally like stepping through a door, one day I was a smoker, the next day I was a former smoker. My body fought this for a couple of months and even now I manage to occasionally fire up the remaining neural centers and create a major craving. But I don’t give in because I Just. Don’t. Do. That. Any. More. I suspect its like being born again, one day fun loving party mammal, the next fundamentalist fish. Poof.

But training people in the technique of mental switching isn’t really practical. Many will give in to the stress, they will eventually use whatever ‘feel good’ mechanism that worked well in the past. That’s why stopping smoking, diets or exercise are so difficult to keep up as an individual. If you’re the only person pushing, the only person ‘suffering’ it is far more difficult to change.

In step the lawmakers, the Twinkie Taxers, the Fat Nazis – those people that make libertarians foam at the mouth. While having good intentions is OK, having someone slap your hand is better. Returning to the Post article,

Despite several years of public education campaigns and outreach efforts to discourage smoking in public places, there was little impact on the rate of smoking, according to the city health department. But starting in 2002, the city imposed an all-out ban on smoking in public places, and, according to the department, some 200,000 people quit within the first two years. Now, of course, the city is after trans fat, in hopes of giving its residents a leg up on their diets. And the District ushered in its new smoking ban yesterday.

In other areas, like company cafeterias charging more for ‘unhealthy’ food as a stick to subsidise carrots or companies refusing to employ smokers is a step towards forcing people to follow what is conceived as a better path. The insurance companies are stepping in to increasingly lobby for more front end control. They are going up against those who make money using emotion to make that momentary pleasure desirable.

As long as there is money to be made giving people the instant gratification, the quick sugar high, the perfect couch potato chip, the ideal mocca-caramel-crunch, people will be unlikely to change. There will be people willing to deep fry that snickers bar to make your life that much better.

Until the short term price of the instant feel-good lifestyle is raised above the long term consequences, change will never occur. But perhaps the question is completely different. Do we really want to live in a highly regulated health food, exercise ridden police state? Or will we simply re-engineer our internal flora to ‘correct’ for bad behaviour?

I don’t know. But since this post was so pointless, so depressing, I think I’m going to go make some hot chocolate, hug a teddy bear on the couch and have some chips. Fear is a fallacy. Perhaps more importantly, do you think this post makes me look fat?

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