Why do we stick to our bad habits?

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 consumption.

"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."

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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 Management.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
-- Oscar Wilde