Why We Make Poor Health Decisions

One glance at the evening news will tell you we live in a world where people disregard health and security in favor of fear and irrationality. It’s a world where parents refuse to vaccinate their children; guns are stashed unsafely at home despite the risk of injury and self-harm, and people take antibiotics for illnesses they cannot possibly alleviate. It’s a tragic result of misinformation at its best and health science denial at its worst.

About three years ago, my father and I set out to solve the mystery of these politically rancorous health issues, following decades of combined years building careers in psychology, neuroscience, and public health at leading academic and policy institutions. Our journey and discoveries resulted in a recently published book from Oxford University Press titled Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us. We’ve been grateful for the very positive initial reviews including Library Journal, calling it “superb” and “perfect for fans of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.” You can hear us on KERA’s Think here or read more at TIME here.

Throughout the book, we make the case that scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public. In the scientific community, that leads to a lot of anger and a lot of assumptions about the “stupidity” of the “general public.” But, when it comes to matters of health and security, it turns out that our own cognitive tendencies and emotional natures can betray us, and that’s largely because our decision-making processes are antithetical to the way science works. Despite the abundance of books, talks, and literature on healthy living and lasting security, we see a common thread that exacerbates the confusion: six social and psychological gremlins that undermine our ability to make sensible decisions and may lead us to reject “accepted” health-related wisdom: the charismatic leader; fear of complexity; confirmation bias and the internet; fear of corporate and government conspiracies; filling the ignorance gap; and the nature of risk prediction. Our efforts have distilled the challenge into a number of key questions and truths:

  • Why we worry so much about relatively low-risk events (contracting the Ebola and Zika viruses) but not enough about high-risk events (such as auto accidents and getting the flu)
  • How scientific communities can improve public communication and education to prevent hysteria and the proliferation of scientifically incorrect notions like the idea that vaccines cause autism
  • The psychology behind why people believe in conspiracy theories and charismatic leaders who promulgate irrational, unscientific beliefs
  • The ways in which humans are hard-wired to arrive at one incorrect conclusion and why it’s incredibly difficult to alter that original belief

While we are still enjoying the exciting response from Denying to the Grave’s release, we don’t consider the conversation to be closed on these important public health concerns. We have recently founded Critica, a place to think deeply and well about health and security matters. At Critica, we’ll explore new and more nuanced ways in which our psychology and perceptions lead us to misguided health decisions and how we can correct them.

We will be formally introducing Critica on Wednesday, September 21 on The Brian Lehrer Show which airs at 10am EDT on NPR/WNYC. Make sure you tune in to hear about these exciting early stages of the organization and where we’re going from here.

As we continue to build this community, we’re welcoming people from all different backgrounds, both scientific and nonscientific, to join us as we look critically at assumptions we’ve all held about our health and our opportunities to get back on track toward wellness and security. Look for our coming website and join the conversation on social media (Twitter and Facebook)