‘No smoking’ signs trigger urge to light up: Communism, Marriage, Evidence-Based Medicine and the Fate of the World
Before you read the blog, please take:
General Knowledge Ethics Quiz
- What is the main cause of climate change?
- What is main cause of global poverty?
- Why does terrorism exist?
- What caused the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster?
Write your answers on a piece of paper for reference. I will provide my answers presently and we can compare.
Brian Earp, a master’s student at Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, has found that ‘no-smoking and anti junk food adverts can be counter-productive by encouraging the behaviour they warn against’. Mr Earp asked 29 smokers to look at 25 images, some of which included ‘no smoking signs’. He found that when they viewed images of the signs they were more motivated to smoke than when they did not see the images.
Previous studies have found similar effects with alcohol. What broader conclusions should we draw from this kind of research?
You would think that a good way to stop people smoking is to tell them to stop smoking. That simple-minded approach evidently doesn’t work.
Simple-minded approaches to realising human goals have been dominant through human history. Throughout our recent history, good natured, and not-so-good natured, people have sought to influence human behaviour by inventing rituals, institutions, ideologies and a whole raft of biopsychosocial interventions. They plucked out their favourite intervention to realise some ideal. One of the most dismal failures was communism: a political system, nice in idea, but which failed utterly because it was blind to the bare facts of human psychology and motivation.
Life-long marriage, I have argued, is another ideal ill-suited to our evolutionary history and biopsychological dispositions in present day. Through most of human history, people experienced serial monogamy, relationships being terminated around 7-10 years by the death of one partner. Some societies have invented til-death-do-us part marriages for a variety of reasons, many religious. Such an institution is ill-fit for our biopsychological nature as animals.
What should we learn from this “anti-smoking messages increase smoking” research? It is a timely and humbling reminder that we are animals with natures and dispositions. We are not machines or toys that can be merely willed in one direction. To influence behaviour we need to understand the science of behaviour. We can’t just invent effective interventions by armchair or political reflection. Things we think will work, sometimes with good reason, often have the opposite effect in practice. Medicine began to recognise this about 20 years ago and this spawned the Evidence-Based Medicine movement. Many interventions which were thought on the basis of our understanding of physiology to have a beneficial effect were in fact shown by randomised controlled trials to cause serious harm and even death.
The greatest challenges, I have argued, to humanity this century arise not from external threat but from human behaviour. Climate change, terrorism, mass migration, environmental degradation, infectious disease, global poverty all result from choices we make which are a result of our psychology and dispositions. The cause of climate change is not carbon dioxide. That is the symptom of the disease. The disease is our choices, our consumerist, capitalist lifestyle. Even the Fukushima Nuclear disaster is not primarily caused by an external event – the tsunami. It is a result of the choice of Japanese authorities to locate a reactor in that place with that level of protection.
If we are to realise our goals and indeed secure the very future of humanity, we urgently need to understand scientifically why humans make the choices which they do and how we can effectively change behaviour.
This kind of psychological research is an exemplar of the most important research going on today: the science of human behaviour.
If you shove a fat man in child’s suit, the suit will burst, no matter how much you want it to fit. Indeed, no matter how “good” it would be if it did fit.