Making good choices – why do so many of us not do this?

emotionsHarriet Hall, the skeptic-doc, writes over on Science Based Medicine a fabulous article all about why people ignore the facts and instead buy into absurd ideas when it comes to making decisions that can potentially be the wrong side of the line between life and death. (Side note: she is a fascinating person, not only is she a doctor, but is also former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon who held the rank of a full Colonel).

So anyway, what has inspired her here is this …(to use her own words) …

Physician Lisa Rosenbaum has written a beautiful essay in The New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Beyond Belief — How People Feel about Taking Medications for Heart Disease“, that sheds a penetrating light on what is really going on. It made me think of the subject in a whole new way.

and her article then concludes with this …

Humans are not like Mr. Spock on Star Trek: they don’t make healthcare decisions based on cold reason. Instead of asking “why?” we would do better to ask “how do you feel?” We would like to believe that if people only knew what we know, they would make the same decisions we would. But if we felt what they feel, we’d understand why they don’t.

A wider scope

As a doctor she is of course specifically concerned about why people make irrational decisions when it comes to healthcare, and it is in that context that she was writing about why people do indeed embrace some crazy stuff despite the available evidence telling them that what they are doing will not actually work, and also throws light on why they are completely ignoring the stuff that has been verified and proven to work.

Her article is an interesting and important read, so is worth pondering over.

Now what prompts me here to write about this is that the scope is not restricted to healthcare choices, but can in fact be widened to rather a lot more, and that includes religious beliefs.

Embracing a Belief

As a teen I well remember accepting an invitation to a bible study, and so with visions of a little old lady reading some dry dusty text, I went along, not because I had a specific interest in such yawn inducing dreary monologs, but because I had been drawn by a rather more hormonal motivation – it was an opportunity to encounter members of a different gender.

The reality was completely at odds with my expectations, because what I encountered a room packed wall-to-wall with teens all eager to hear Ruth, a 20-something, share about an experience that was of course religious but also deeply emotional. There was hand-clapping, catchy tunes, all packaged up into a emotional roller-coaster ride that captured many including myself, and so inevitably I bought into it all.

Thinking back, there are a few specific observations that now clearly stand out for me

  1. It was not an exchange of information, but rather was an emotional package, the reasons why it was deemed to be true would of course fall into place later, but first before all that it was primarily an emotional choice.
  2. It could have been any religious belief at all, Zeus, Thor, a magic pink unicorn, whatever you can dream up … many would still have invested because it was was not just socially acceptable and claimed to be true, but was also emotional sugar.

Harriott’s article very much resonates with me, and while she specifically has healthcare choices in mind, the observation I’m drawing from it all is that people embrace specific beliefs, not for intellectual reasons, nor specifically because we consider the belief to be true, but rather because it is a safe haven, and is more about the comfort and emotional support it brings – we feel our way into such things.

When later challenged, various ideas are presented to justify the belief, and yet if those justifications are washed away, nothing changes, because that is not why we believe at all, but is instead how we later come to rationalise it.

Peter’s Story

Peter was a chap who was quite convinced that God was real, and when challenged he would talk about the second law of thermodynamics as “evidence” (I’ll not get into why it is not a credible argument, I’ll save that for another day). I well recall that he told me how at work a polite chap whom he greatly respected as an intellectual had gently taken him down to the library and carefully talked him through it all, clearly explained why this argument did not stand up, and successfully convinced Peter that it was indeed not a credible argument.

Never again did Peter use that argument after that. I’m not making this up, it’s a true story, Peter himself explained to me why the argument was a bad one and was advising me (as a believer at that time) that it was best to not use it. Now what is interesting about this is that Peter no longer had this rational reason for asserting a God claim, and despite the fact that he had previously used this as one of his primary arguments, he still passionately believed. The key point here is that that after having the intellectual foundation kicked away, nothing had changed for him.


Well because it never had been an intellectual conclusion, or even an evidence-based conclusion, but rather it was an emotional investment.

It never has been about what we think

When faced with people who passionately believe, it may indeed be tempting to engage intellectually, and yet even if we do win the debate, the conversation will change nothing because that is not what is going on.

When faced with people who embrace crazy ideas, we might be tempted into thinking, “if only they knew what I know”, and so we then attempt to impart what we feel is missing information, and yet after doing this, not only does nothing change, but what we say is ignored, rejected or discarded, so we become a tad frustrated. What we need to appreciate is that this is not about a lack of information, but rather is about how they feel, and so if you wish to engage and initiate a meaningful intervention, then you need to not only understand what they feel, but why they feel what they feel, and address that.

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