Why People Make Choices They Know Are Unhealthy

By Linda T. Hummel
President of the Employer Group Business Segment, Humana of Texas

Humana green logoAmericans are constantly bombarded by health information. Television, magazines, the Internet, and other media sources are replete with information about the critical role that healthy behaviors play in preventing disease, improving quality of life, and reducing long-term healthcare costs. As a result, most people understand the crucial importance of regular exercise and healthy eating to long-term health.

One would think that this abundance of data would yield a nation full of people who are in excellent shape and run little risk of developing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, says Laura Ten Eyck, Ph.D., a clinical outcomes expert with LifeSynch, the wholly-owned behavioral health and change subsidiary of Humana Inc. “But many Americans continue to make unhealthy choices despite the overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t,” Dr. Eyck says.

People have many different reasons for choosing not to engage in healthy behaviors, and Dr. Eyck has identified the following as three such reasons.

‘They’re just trying to scare me’
Scare tactics, or “fear appeal,” are a common approach in health messaging, highlighting the negative consequences associated with engaging in harmful behaviors or choosing not to engage in healthful behaviors; however, extensive studies show a relatively consistent result: Fear appeal rarely works (Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001).

Why? Evidence shows that when people hear or read health messages and realize that they fall into the group being targeting, they are very likely to discredit the evidence (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Holt, 1985). They say to themselves, “They’re just trying to scare me,” and fail to take action.

‘There’s always someone in worse shape than me’
Dr. Eyck says another way people talk themselves out of worrying about their current health status is by comparing themselves to others they perceive as “worse off.” Many unconsciously rationalize their condition as minimal compared to someone else’s.

There is ample research evidence to support this conclusion. When research subjects have the opportunity to compare themselves to someone else on a specific characteristic such as weight, they often choose someone who will make them appear in a more favorable light (Wills, 1981). “By engaging in this type of comparison, they protect their self-image and self-esteem, which often helps them maintain a sense of wellbeing,” Dr. Eyck explained. “Their unconscious choices communicate a clear message: ‘There’s always someone in worse shape than me.’”

‘It’s not my fault’
A third excuse people unconsciously make also involves comparison with others. People tend to believe that their own choices and actions are driven by external factors they cannot control, while other people’s choices and actions are driven by internal factors. This tendency is called the actor-observer effect (Jones & Nisbett, 1972). It absolves the person making the comparison from any responsibility for his or her actions, letting him or her say, in effect, “It’s not my fault.”

A better approach
The field of psychology has evolved over the years to address poor choices. Positive psychology is a relatively new approach, starting in the late 1990s. Dr. Eyck says psychologists who subscribe to this methodology focus on what is best about people, based on an extensive study of character qualities common to all humans. We have seen positive psychology applied to other health and behavioral health disciplines. But why is it a good fit? Dr. Eyck notes research shows us that happy, optimistic people:

  • Are healthier. They have stronger immune systems and are less likely to get sick.
  • Recover more quickly from illness.
  • Have fewer health complications.
  • Live longer.

In a coaching or counseling situation, the coach assesses the strengths of the client and then leverages those strengths to help the client achieve a stated goal. The emphasis shifts from the scare tactics, the victim mentality, and the helpless feelings to “How can I use my strengths to attain my goal?” People feel empowered, motivated, and encouraged, and they can choose to increase their overall happiness and fulfillment

To learn more about how LifeSynch can help your organization improve the lives of your employees or members contact lsproductrequest@lifesynch.comor visit LifeSynch.com.

Linda T. Hummel is President of the Employer Group Division for Humana Inc. (NYSE: HUM) in Texas. A 22-year veteran with Humana, Hummel is responsible for the overall management and strategic planning for Humana’s statewide commercial operations and products, which include health maintenance organizations (HMO), preferred provider organizations (PPO), self-insured plans (ASO), point-of-service plans (POS), Group Medicare plans, specialty benefit products and HumanaVitality, a comprehensive health, wellness and loyalty solution. 

Aspinwall, L. G. (1998). “Rethinking the Role of Positive Affect in Self-Regulation.” Motivation and Emotion, Vol 22, No 1.

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E., (1971). “The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior.” Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Holt, K. (1985). “Maintaining consistency between self-serving beliefs and available data: A bias in information processing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 179-190.

Ruiter, R.A.C., Abraham, C., & Kok, G. (2001). “Scary warnings and rational precautions: A review of the psychology of fear appeals.” Psychology and Health, 16, 313-630.

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). “The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory.” In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183-242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wills, T. A. (1981). “Downward comparison principles in social psychology.” Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245-271.