What Makes Us Stick To Our Bad Habits?
Medical News Today,
November 9, 2006
Why do we ignore public warnings and
advertisements about the dangers of smoking, drinking
alcohol, overeating, stressing out and otherwise persist
in habits and behaviours that we know aren't good for us?
Because, says a University of Alberta researcher, we
aren't getting at the underlying reasons of why we persist
in bad habits or risky behaviour.
In two recent case studies asking people to rate the
danger of various types of risks including lifestyle
habits, it was clear that they understood what types of
behaviour are the riskiest, but that knowledge wasn't
enough to motivate them to change their ways, said Dr.
Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology
at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
"The results showed that in fact, people have a very
realistic understanding of the various risks in their
lives. We as risk communicators--scientists, academics,
government agencies--have to get beyond the thought of 'If
they only understood the facts, they'd change.' They do
understand the facts, but we need to look at other factors
we haven't been looking at before."
Jardine presented her findings recently at the RiskCom
2006 Conference in Sweden.
In the first case study conducted by Jardine, 1,200 people
in Alberta were surveyed in both 1994 and 2005. Lifestyle
habits like cigarette smoking, stress and sun-tanning were
ranked as the top three risks, being considered more
dangerous to the Alberta public than technology or
pollution hazards such as chemical contamination, ozone
depletion and sour gas wells. Cigarette smoking was ranked
as "very dangerous" by 53 per cent of those surveyed in
1994 and by 60 per cent of the respondents surveyed in
2005. Stress was ranked as "very dangerous" by 54 per cent
of the people in 1994 and by 65 per cent in 2005. In
contrast, sour gas wells were ranked as "very dangerous"
by only 24 per cent of the people in 1994 and by 28 per
cent in 2005.
The second case study, involving a survey conducted in two
northern Aboriginal communities in Canada revealed similar
results. Again, lifestyle risks were seen as the most
hazardous. Almost everyone in the communities ranked risk
associated with alcohol use (96 to 100 per cent of the
respondents) and smoking (80 per cent of respondents) as
"very dangerous". Risks associated with trace contaminants
and doing traditional activities in a harsh environment
were ranked as less risky.
When asked about personal and community health issues, the
respondents in the second survey freely acknowledged that
they knew about the hazards of risky behaviour like
choosing to drive while impaired, about secondhand
cigarette smoke and about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, when
unborn babies are damaged by their mothers' alcohol
"So they know alcohol is bad, but risk communicators
aren't looking at the underlying reasons why people
drink--poverty, unemployment, there is a history of abuse
in some of these families. If we could get to the
underlying issues of what turns people to drink, we would
do better in fully understanding the context of their
lives," Jardine said. "If we're just telling people what
we know about the health risks, chances are we aren't
going to solve any problems."
Factors such as the need for social acceptance and plain
old human defiance play roles in persistent bad habits,
the study suggests. "We get a sense of belonging that is
important to us. We can see ourselves as part of a social
structure; it's very hard to change a behaviour if it is
still accepted socially," Jardine said. "For instance,
stress is bad for us, yet we wear it as a badge of honour.
It is seen as a socially desirable thing to be
overworking. We don't seem to have the same respect for
people who work a 40-hour week."
As well, we don't like to hear about what we shouldn't be
doing, so we rationalize our bad habits, Jardine said. "We
all have a bit of recalcitrant child in us. We keep
smoking with the excuse 'It hasn't hurt me so far, or 'It
helps control my stress or weight'."
Until the psychology behind risky behaviour is really
understood, people won't give up their vices, no matter
how much they know, Jardine said. She suggests researchers
and other risk communicators need to talk to the people
they're trying to reach, before forming messages. "We need
to listen more to the things that really concern people
and to look at social norms and why they are starting to
dictate our actions. We as a society have to rethink and
challenge those norms."
The studies were supported in part by funding from Health
Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council and the Eco-Research Chair in Environmental Risk
Contact: Bev Betkowski
University of Alberta