4 Sneaky Mental Biases That Can Influence Your Health Choices

We all make mistakes in our health and our relationships. Bad decisions can happen to anyone. Some of these errors are relatively minor, but other choices we make will have a long-term negative effect on our physical and emotional well being. What you might not know is that these mental mistakes are often caused by subtle cognitive biases.

Here's a closer look at how mental biases influence the day-to-day decisions you make that can affect your health, from small choices like what to eat for lunch to the bigger decisions that could have lifelong consequences for your health.


Confirmation Bias

Woman reading Japanese newspaper


Monty Rakusen/Getty

Only Listening to Advice That Confirms Your Beliefs

People have a natural tendency to seek out information that affirms what they already believe to be true. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is why we often give greater credence to news stories that support the things we believe, while at the same time discounting stories that are contrary to our view of the world.

How does this confirmation bias influence your health? We tend to focus on the news stories or research reports that reinforce our current health and lifestyle choices while dismissing possibly useful and relevant information that conflicts with our behavior, habits, preferences, and choices.

For example, if you exercise a few times a week but otherwise spend most of your time sitting at a desk, you might be more inclined to ignore health reports warning that too much sitting might be hurting your health.

What You Can Do

Simply being aware of confirmation bias is a great place to start. The next time you find yourself dismissing information because it does not confirm your beliefs or support your behaviors, spend a little time analyzing why you are so quick to reject it.

Challenging your preconceptions can be a great way to expand your mind and explore new ways of thinking. You may come to accept contrary information—though that does not necessarily mean that you have to restructure your life to accommodate it. Instead, look for small changes that you can make in your daily routine that might ultimately lead to better health.

You certainly don't need to rush out and buy a standing desk just because you read a news article claiming that sitting is bad for you. You could, however, try to become more conscious of how much you sit in a day and look for opportunities to get up and move about.


Optimism Bias

Man wearing goggles in a tanning booth.



Being Overly Optimistic About Your Health

People are prone to being more optimistic about their chances of success and good health, a phenomenon often referred to as the optimism bias or illusion of invulnerability.

If you ask people to estimate how likely it is that they will ever experience an accident, serious illness, divorce, or job loss, they will likely underestimate the true probability of these events happening to them.

People are more likely to believe that their lives will be filled with positive events such as earning high incomes, owning their own homes, and living long lives.

This bias means we are also more likely to believe that engaging in unhealthy or risky behaviors will not have a negative effect on our health. This is particularly true if we believe that the negative outcomes are rare or unlikely.

For example, you would be more likely to continue tanning and neglecting to use sunscreen if you believed that skin cancer is a rare disease. In doing so, you not only underestimate the overall prevalence of skin cancer, but optimism bias leads you to underestimate the likelihood that you would get skin cancer—regardless of your health choices and behaviors.

Being optimistic is not a bad thing. Having a positive outlook and believing that our actions can make a difference is often what inspires us to pursue our goals and engage in healthy activities in the first place.

What You Can Do

Researchers have found that overcoming optimism bias can be quite difficult. In one study that attempted to reduce participants' bias through various methods (such as listing risk factors) all the methods intended to decrease bias ended up increasing it.

One strategy that might work involves comparing yourself to individuals who are very close or similar to you. For example, if you have close friends and family members who have been affected by skin cancer, your assessment of your own risk might be more realistic.


Probability Neglect

Unidentifiable teen buckling car seatbelt.


Ned Frisk/Getty 

Worrying About Unlikely Risks and Ignoring Likely Dangers

When people are making decisions—especially in the face of uncertainty—they have a tendency to disregard the probability of each possibility.

For example, most people don't find themselves filled with dread and terror every time they start their car, but many people do experience significant anxiety when flying on a plane—despite the fact that dying in a car accident is far more likely than dying in an airplane crash.

Social psychologist Cass Sunstein labeled this tendency probability neglect, a cognitive bias that causes people to dramatically overinflate small risks or simply ignore them altogether. The bias can affect everyday decisions, including those related to your health.

Researchers have investigated how probability neglect affects people's decisions to wear seat belts in the car. People sometimes worry that wearing a seatbelt would actually put them at more risk if they were in an accident where their car was stuck underwater or engulfed in flames—two situations in which restraints could leave them trapped.

This scenario represents a very low probability event, yet the probability neglect bias might lead people to overinflate the chances of it happening or ignore the probability of much more likely accident scenarios.

Making these types of overestimations can lead to poor health choices—in this case, failing to wear a seatbelt even though it is statistically more likely to protect an individual's life in the event of a collision.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that millions of American adults fail to use seat belts for every trip in their vehicle, despite the fact that seatbelt use is the most effective way to reduce injuries and fatalities during vehicular accidents.

What You Can Do

The research is not clear, but giving yourself time to weigh your options, taking a good look at the probabilities associated with each scenario, and following the health guidelines provided by medical professionals can help guide you in your decision-making.


Status Quo Bias

Senior Black couple looking at computer.


Ariel Skelley/Getty

Fearing Loss From Making Change

You likely review your health insurance options every year to determine which plan is best for you and your family. Do you stick with your current plan or go with a new one? What drives your decision?

One sneaky cognitive bias that can influence which option you choose is known as the status quo bias. People tend to prefer that things stay the same—even if making changes could potentially lead to big benefits.

People are prone to stick with what they know rather than take a risk on the unknown.

One study found that while younger workers are more willing to switch to a health plan that featured lower premiums and deductibles, older workers were less likely to switch and preferred to stick with their old "tried and true" plans.

The status quo bias is one reason why people close to retirement age are often less willing to change to a potentially better—but potentially higher-risk—health plan. The possible losses tend to loom larger in people's minds, making them place a greater emphasis on loss-avoidance than on maximizing benefits. This becomes particularly true as people approach retirement age and feel that they have more at stake and less time to make up for any potential mistakes.

What You Can Do

The status quo bias can have a negative effect on your health if you were to, for example, stick with a health plan that offers poorer coverage just because you are afraid to make changes.

However, the status quo bias has some health-protective benefits. Minimizing risk means that people are less likely to experience losses that could negatively affect their health and well-being.

A Word From Verywell

The decisions you make every day can have both minor and major impacts on your overall health and well-being. Being aware of the subtle mental biases that play a role in your choices can help you make better decisions.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Williams P, Kern ML, Waters L. Exploring selective exposure and confirmation bias as processes underlying employee work happiness: An intervention study [published correction appears in Front Psychol. 2017 Feb 13;8:182]Front Psychol. 2016;7:878. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00878

  2. Meppelink CS, Smit EG, Fransen ML, Diviani N. “I was right about vaccination”: Confirmation bias and health literacy in online health information seekingJournal of Health Communication. 2019;24(2):129-140. doi:10.1080/10810730.2019.1583701

  3. Sharot T, Guitart-Masip M, Korn CW, Chowdhury R, Dolan RJ. How dopamine enhances an optimism bias in humansCurr Biol. 2012;22(16):1477-1481. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.05.053

  4. Perloff LS, Fetzer BK. Self–other judgments and perceived vulnerability to victimizationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1986;50(3):502-510. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.50.3.502

  5. Borschmann R, Lines K, Cottrell D. Sun protective behaviour, optimism bias, and the transtheoretical model of behaviour change. 2012;64(4):181-188. doi:10.1111/j.1742-9536.2011.00049.x

  6. Weinstein ND, Klein WM. Resistance of personal risk perceptions to debiasing interventionsHealth Psychol. 1995;14(2):132-140. doi:10.1037//0278-6133.14.2.132

  7. Pachur T, Hertwig R, Wolkewitz R. The affect gap in risky choice: Affect-rich outcomes attenuate attention to probability informationDecision. 2014;1(1):64-78. doi:10.1037/dec0000006

  8. Sunstein CR. Probability neglect: Emotions, worst cases, and lawSSRN Journal. January 2001. doi:10.2139/ssrn.292149

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seat belts: Get the facts. Updated June 5, 2018.

  10. National Bureau of Economic Research. Lessons for Health Care from Behavioral Economics. Updated 2008.

  11. Samuelson W, Zeckhauser R. Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 1988;1:7-59. doi:10.1007/BF00055564