4 Sneaky Mental Biases That Can Influence Your Health Choices


Only Listening to Health Advice That Confirms Existing Beliefs

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Mental Biases and Health Choices

We all make mistakes with our health and our relationships. Sometimes these errors can be relatively minor, but sometimes the everyday choices we make can have long-term negative impacts on our physical and mental well being.

Bad decisions can happen to anyone, but in many cases these mental mistakes are caused by sneaky and surprisingly subtle cognitive biases. Let's take a closer look at how some of these mental biases can influences the health choices you make each and every day, from small decisions about what to eat for lunch to bigger choices that may have a long-term impact on both your physical and psychological health and well-being.

Confirmation Bias

People have a natural tendency to seek out information that affirms what they already believe to be true, a phenomenon known as the confirmation bias. It's the reason 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 views of the world.

So how does this confirmation bias influence your health? Sometimes we tend to focus on news stories or research reports that affirm our current health or lifestyle choices, yet dismiss possibly useful and relevant stories because they conflict with our behavior or health decisions. 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.

So, what can you do to combat this bias and make more objective decisions when it comes to your health? Simply being aware of this tendency is a great place to start. The next time you find yourself dismissing information because it does not immediately 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, and even accepting this contrary information does not necessarily mean that you have to restructure your life to accommodate it. Instead, look for small changes that you might make in your daily routine that might ultimately lead to better health.

In our earlier example, you certainly don't need to rush out and buy a standing desk or treadmill desk simply because you read a news article saying that sitting is bad. Instead, try to be conscious of how much you sit in a day and look for small changes you can make that might help get you up and moving more throughout your day.


Being Overly Optimistic About Your Health

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People are also prone to being more optimistic about their own 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 something such as an accident, serious illness, divorce, or job loss, they will likely underestimate the true probability that such events will impact their lives.

People are also 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.

So what role can the optimism bias play in the decisions you make each day about your health?

Because we tend to overestimate the chances of good things happening to us and underestimate the chances of bad things affecting our lives, we are also more likely to believe that engaging in unhealthy or risky behaviors will not have a negative effect on our health.

This can be particularly true if we believe that the negative outcomes are rare or unlikely. If you believe that skin cancer is a relatively rare disease, you might continue tanning and neglecting sunscreen use because you simply think that it is highly uncommon for anyone to be affected by the ailment. You not only underestimate the overall prevalence of skin cancer, but the optimism bias also leads you to underestimate the likelihood that skin cancer would ever affect you, regardless of your health choices and behaviors.

This certainly does not mean that being optimistic is 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.

Interestingly, researchers have found that overcoming the optimism bias can actually be quite difficult. In one study that attempted to reduce the bias using methods such as listing risk factors and listing reasons why they might be at risk, all methods used to decrease the bias ended up serving to increase 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, you might be more realistic in your assessments of your own risks.


Worrying About Less Likely Risks and Ignoring More Likely Dangers

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When people are making decisions, particularly those 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 amounts of anxiety when flying on a plane. This is 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 often causes people to dramatically overinflate small risks or simply ignore them altogether. This bias can affect a number of everyday decisions, including those that impact your health and well-being.

One example that researchers have investigated is how this bias can impact people's decisions to wear seat belts when riding in a car. Some individuals might fear that wearing a seat belt might pose a greater risk in the case of an accident where a vehicle becomes submerged in water or engulfed in flames, suggested that the restraining device might actually lead to an individual becoming trapped an unable to escape.

This scenario represents a very low probability event, yet the probability neglect bias might lead some people to overinflate the chances it may occur or ignore the probably of much more likely accident scenarios. Such overestimations can lead to poor health choices—in this instance, failing to wear a seatbelt even though it is statistically more likely protect the individual's life in the event of a collision.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that millions of American adults fail to use seat belts for every trip, despite the fact that seat belt use is the most effect way to reduce injuries and fatalities during vehicular accidents.

So what can you do to minimize the possibility that the probability neglect bias might lead to poor decision-making when it comes to your health? The research is not clear, but giving yourself time to weigh the options, taking a serious look at the probabilities associated with each scenario, and following health guidelines provided by medical professionals can help guide you to better choices.


Sticking With the Status Quo and Refusing to Accept Change

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If you are like many people, you might find yourself looking over 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? One sneaky little cognitive bias that can play a role in determining which option you choose is known as the status quo bias. People tend to prefer that things stay the same as they are now, even if making certain changes might potentially lead to big benefits. In other words, people are more prone to stick with what they know rather than take a risk on the unknown.

One study found that while younger workers 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 those who are closer to retirement age might be less willing to take a risk on a potentially better, but also potentially riskier, health plan. The possible losses that might result from switching tend to loom larger in people's minds, making them place a greater emphasis on loss-avoidance rather 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.

The status quo bias might negatively impact health in situations such as those where people stick with a plan that offers poorer coverage out of fear of changing their current situation. In other cases, however, the status quo bias can actually offer some health protective benefits. By minimizing risks, people are less likely to experience losses that might negatively influence their health and well-being.

Final Thoughts

The decisions you make each and every day can have both minor and major impacts on your overall health and well-being. Some choices will be good, some choices okay, and some can be downright disastrous. Being aware of some of the often subtle mental biases that play a role in the decisions you make might help you make better decisions when it comes to your health. 

Also, read more about an overview of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Seat belts: Get the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015.

  • Perloff LS, Fetzer BK. Self-other judgments and perceived vulnerability to victimization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1986;50:502–510.