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This article in a widely-viewed
Web news source is a classic example of "scientific" and media ignorance
and misinformation. The author and the cited "experts" aren't aware
of the universal reality of
and try to explain why irrational and harmful ("bad") habits persist in average
36 years' clinical experience,
I propose that epidemic failure to break
"bad habits" is strong evidence of normal people being
they are ruled by well-meaning
this nonprofit Web site provides a practical way to
your wise resident
and control or end harmful habits and attitudes like self neglect.
Note my comments after
the article. The links and hilights here
Peter Gerlach, MSW
A study by scientists at the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that
avoidable behaviors like cigarette
use, poor diet and lack of exercise were the underlying cause of half of the
deaths in the United States in the year 2000. Deaths cause by:
Inactivity and bad eating: 400,000
Alcohol consumption: 85,000
SOURCE: March 10, 2004 issue of the
Journal of the American Medical
It might seem a total wonder
that a smoker won't quit after hearing that puffing away is a leading cause
of death, or that an obese person can't shed a
few pounds after learning that lethal ailments loom for the overweight.
But scientists have come up with a host of reasons why humans stick to bad
habits, and they are zeroing in on what to do about it. Among the reasons:
Innate human defiance.
Need for social acceptance
Inability to truly understand the nature of
Individualistic view of the world and the
ability to rationalize unhealthy habits.
Genetic predisposition to (alcohol) addiction.
You'd think people were on a
one-track mission to self-destruct rather than desiring immortality.
"We have found that people aren't
changing their behaviors," said Cindy Jardine of the University of
Alberta. "But it's not because they haven't gotten the information that
these are big risks." She added,
tend to sort of live for now and into the limited futureónot the long term."
In a recent study, a group led by Jardine surveyed 1,200 people in Alberta,
Canada in 1994 and again in 2005 about what they perceived to be risky behaviors.
Many of the participants ranked
lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking, drinking and sun tanning, as more
dangerous than ozone depletion and chemical pollution.
In a related study that wrapped up this year, the scientists asked groups of
indigenous Canadians why they ranked behaviors dangerous or not.
For instance, when asked about drinking and driving, most participants
mentioned that you could hurt yourself or somebody else. If people know
cigarettes can kill them or drinking and driving could be lethal, logic
suggests they might quit it. Yet
even with this knowledge, Jardine said, people continue to undertake these
Everybody's doing it
Jardine suggests several reasons for the contrary findings. For one, when a
behavior is socially accepted or even considered desirable people tend to
reconcile the fact that it's bad for them with the idea that "everybody's
doing it," she said.
"I know this is bad for me but in social circles this makes me more
accepted," Jardine said of the common reasoning. "It ends up being
something people rationalize
one way or another. And it's often easier to rationalize it in favor of
trying to fit into your social group."
Addiction in Your Genes
Vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse has been located to a particular
One way of making it okay to smoke like a chimney or eat like a pig is with
individual experiences that support your action. For instance, you could
say, "It hasn't hurt me yet," or, "My grandmother smoked all her life and
lived to be 90."
In 2004, Jardine found that
moved past cigarette smoking as the most dangerous habit.
"Most of us wear our stress as a badge of honor these days," Jardine said.
So rather than thinking about stress as causing physical damage to your body
and perhaps hurting family relationships,
"people often boast of their stress
as a success."
Typically the likelihood of contracting a disease or dying from a substance
or activity is reported numerically as a percentage or ratio [see The Odds
Ellen Peters of the University of Oregon has found that people who are
better at processing numbers look at the same information differently than
people not as number-minded, who tend to rely more on
than actual hard
evidence. Being afraid of cancer could drive their decisions on whether or
not to smoke or the importance of treatment for particular cancers.
It comes down to emotions, which
Peters suggests act as guiding lights in choices.
That's one reason she thinks the "truth" campaign by the
Foundation and other anti-cigarette campaigns have been so effective. The
truth ads show gruesome images such as a bleeding brain or inflamed heart
with text stating cigarettes as the cause. One video ad shows a human-size
rat walking up from a subway station and then collapsing on the sidewalk
with a sign about how cigarettes contain rat poison.
The Truth Hurts ... and Helps
A study by the American Legacy Foundation showed that 22 percent of the
overall decline in youth smoking from 2000 to 2002 was attributable to their
Social and physical environments
also play large roles in fueling poor habits.
For example, if you perceive that all of your friends are staying up all
night, baking in the sun every day at the beach or taking multiple smoke
breaks during work, this will affect whether you also take part in the
Couch potatoes might be glued to the TV by
external factors more than a
lack of desire to be healthy. We tell people they need to become physically active, but in certain
neighborhoods if you get out and go for a walk you could be putting yourself
in harms way from either traffic that's not well controlled or other kinds
of things like violence in your neighborhood," said Andrea Gielen of Johns
Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Coming up with successful pro-health campaigns requires more research and
multiple strategies, experts say.
"There's no single strategy or single bullet. We're not going to be able to
find a vaccine for healthy behavior," Gielen said. "We have to be more
creative. We have to have different kinds of partners and work with many