Why Is Health Information So Hard to Take In?
The city of Oran in North Africa. It starts with a dead rat. Then more and more. Soon people are starting to get sick too. Fever. Swollen lymph glands. Rising death count. Dr. Rieux, the city physician, realizes that an outbreak of plague is imminent.
Desperately he tries to get the city’s inhabitants and authorities to listen to his warnings. But people skeptically shake their heads. The death count may be a coincidence, after all. They want definite evidence that plague has broken out before any quarantine measures can be considered.
At last the evidence appears mercilessly clear to everyone, and panic-stricken measures are taken. But it’s too late. The outbreak of plague is a fact.
In his novel The Plague Albert Camus shows the paradox of information about health risks. We readily dismiss it, we misinterpret it or try to explain it away. First we want proof that we ourselves may be affected.
But the whole point of information about health risks is of course to take measures before the evidence — a heart attack, lung cancer or a paralyzing stroke — arrives.
The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown how hard it is to process statistical information — not even statisticians themselves are able to apply risk information in a rational way in their lives.1
The Problem with Health Information
Studies have shown that many patients think that “diabetes is a dangerous disease — but not for me.”
Everyone knows that it’s good to exercise and not eat too much — even if exactly what we should eat is disputed. The problem in our part of the world is most often not a lack of health information. The problem is that this information is so hard to take in.
Sometimes the information is perceived as much too general to speak to us. Other times it is so threatening that we simply reject it. We would rather not think about risks. Many people with lifestyle-related diseases also have a negative self-image about their ability to manage their own health. Dismissing information about health risks becomes a confirmation of “that’s just the way I am.”2
Changes in Line with Personal Values
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently did an interesting study.3 They let participants describe their core values in life, for example family, creativity, nature or security. After the participants thought through their core values, they got information about the importance of regular exercise. A control group got the same health information but without thinking about their core values.
It turned out that the group that got to think about their core values before they received health information increased their physical activity considerably more than the control group. With magnetic field cameras the researchers could even show increased activity in a region in the brain that reflects positively valued information.
If health information is given in a positive way and linked to your core values, you can more easily take it in and let it influence your everyday activities. But you must make this connection yourself.
That is why we with this tool put so much emphasis on questions that increase your self-awareness and help you focus on what is most essential and meaningful. Such questions can give you a structure to navigate the jungle of health information and practically apply information in a way that works for you on an everyday basis.
How do you react to information about your own health and lifestyle?
1. Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow
2. Cohen G et al., The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2014. 65:333–71
3. Falk E et al., PNAS. 2015. 112: 1977