Why We Can be Stubborn About our Health

How Our Brains Can Make us Ignore Health Advice

There is something that we all have that makes it extra hard to follow health advice and make some changes for the better, even if we want that change for ourselves. There is a way our brains work that makes us stubborn and resistant to change.  It’s called confirmation bias. 

Here’s what it is.  According to Jonathan Haidt, who wrote a book about this called The Righteous Mind, it is: “…each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons.” In his book, he is pretty much talking about things like politics and religion, which are rife with subjective observations.  But, the same process happens in the area of  health information or advice. 

Drat!  In other words, although we may like to think otherwise, we do not respond well to reasoning, logic, or evidence, in very many areas of our lives.  We have often already come to certain conclusions based on previous opinions, self-image, or alignment of values. 

Alas, Jonathan Haidt pointed out another dimension of confirmation bias.  He said that people will often ask themselves, consciously or unconsciously, whether they can believe something, or even if it is necessary to believe it.  In other words, people check in with themselves and decide whether believing a certain thing is convenient or desirable.

How it plays out

Putting it into a day-to-day context, consider this example.  If a person is very attached to eating lots of butter, they will embrace cooking with butter, use it generously on bread and so on.  This person will tend to dismiss any information that warns of the health dangers of doing so. 

Here’s another example.  Let’s say a person has been given advice to eat more vegetables because they can help fight disease processes, and may even help to maintain a healthy eight.  This person already knows that they don’t like the taste of vegetables, and thinks that they are a nuisance to prepare.  Besides, they tell themselves, how important is it really?  In this case, existing beliefs and experiences are left intact. 

Further proof lies in a ton of research regarding acting on health advice.  People are not usually great at following health advice unless they have a broad underlying value of maintaining health throughout life, or have had a health scare.  It’s likely that you have observed this in people you know, or maybe even in yourself. 

Habits and choices

There is another aspect to this that may be overlooked.  That is, people do not like too many choices.  In spite of the plethora of items we see at the grocery store, research tells us that people would rather be faced with 5 choices than 20 or 30. 

This plays out when we form habits.  Many people end up buying the same things at the grocery store every week, ordering the same cup of coffee at Starbucks, or having the same menu on holidays.  For one thing, weighing options takes time and energy.  For another, we like to stick with what works for us. 

Here I would like to insert another thing that can come into play.  Most people think that maintaining health means dieting and exercise.  This approach also speaks to our fondness for fewer choices.  A diet is something that eliminates choice and tells us what to do.  For many, exercise means heading to the gym and sweating it out.  Unfortunately, both of these options are often seen as a burden, something negative.  Many people end up abandoning these endeavors rather than try to find better solutions that they may perceive as being more complicated.

Just when you may be tempted to think that you aren’t biased or entrenched in your opinions and actions, here is something else.  Scientists have now done brain imaging to track biased thoughts.  They have found that, when something is presented that confirms a thought or opinion, the brain lights up.  When the material presented does not line up with a person’s thinking, it is dismissed by the brain.  It appears that there is a pathway created for choice-consistent information, but not for information that presents conflicting evidence for the choice. 

What to do? 

Seems like the deck is stacked against us!  No wonder it’s so hard to change some eating or exercise behaviors.  Dare I give out some advice? 

  • Embrace confirmation bias.  In other words, be aware that this is something that we all have.  Watch out for it, and do what you can to resist.  Stay open and curious.
  • Find and set up a something positive about the desired change.  This may take some creativity, but do your best.
  • Set up your environment to support a new behavior.  For example, design a new grocery list to support new food choices. 
  • Break the advice given up into bits.  Small change!  Having to change too many things at once can throw your brain into a tizzy!  Sneak up on it.
  • Stop forcing yourself to do something that, deep down, you wonder is really necessary.  Drop the diet and exercise/torture and go for walks, explore tasty new foods and recipes, and share them with your friends and family. 

These things may sound familiar to some of you.  It is “advice” that is often handed out in books or is part of a program.  So now, you can think of it not as “advice,” but as ways to fool your confirmation bias.

As always, cheers,

© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: designer491 | iStock

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