More a danger to ourselves

Photo by Flickr user juanignaciosl ~ ~. Click for sourceThe latest Wired UK has an interesting piece by behavioural economist Dan Ariely who notes that we are now more likely than ever to be the agents of our own demise – through the poor choices we make.

“One of the most interesting analyses on the ways in which our decisions kill us is by Ralph Keeney (Operation Research, 2008). He puts forth the claim that 44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour…

Using the same method to examine causes of death in 1900, Keeney found that only around ten per cent of premature deaths were caused by personal decisions. Compared to the more recent proportion of 44.5 per cent of premature deaths caused by personal decisions, it seems that we have “improved” in making decisions that kill us (meaning that we’ve actually got worse). And no, this is not because we’re now all binge drinking, murderous smokers. It’s largely because potentially fatal illnesses, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia (the most common causes of death in the early 20th century), are far more rare these days, and the temptation and our ability to make erroneous decisions (driving while texting, say) have increased dramatically.

What this means is that instead of relying on external factors to keep us alive and healthy for longer, we can (and must) learn to rely on our decision-making skills in order to reduce the number of stupid and costly mistakes that we make.”

This reflects the fact that clinical and health psychologists are now increasingly working with patients who have ‘physical’ illness rather than ‘mental’ illness.

The field has come to be called ‘behavioural medicine‘ and can include working with people who have conditions like diabetes, heart problems or transplants to help them tackle any cognitive biases, emotional influences or behavioural tendencies that lead to poorer health decisions.

Link to Wired UK piece ‘Do the right thing’.

Full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor for Wired UK.

2 thoughts on “More a danger to ourselves”

  1. Firstly, I’d want to know how pre-
    mature death is defined. Is it death
    prior to life expectancy in that time
    or something else? In 1900, regulations
    were so lacking that premature death
    due to accident or work injuries was
    very high. That has nothing to do with
    a change in personal choices, but a
    change in regulation that has made those
    kind of deaths much more rare now,
    highlighting premature deaths that
    result from smoking, etc. In 1900, for
    example, level train crossings in cities
    were very common and led to many deaths
    and loss of limbs. Prosthetic limbs was,
    in those days, a roaring business.

  2. I saw this piece a few days ago, and the use of the term “decisions” in saying “our personal decisions kill us” rubs me the wrong way. It implies that people are making well thought out, conscious choices about things like nutrition, sex, substance use, criminality, and the like. Are these really thought-out decisions, or are they motivations gone awry? How much of these kinds of behaviors are guided by conscious choice?

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