Rebecca Brown’s Posts

In Defence of Impulsivity

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

It has become commonplace to identify a lack of impulse control as a major cause of poor health. A popular theory within behavioural science tells us that our behaviour is regulated via two systems: the fast, impulsive system 1 (the ‘impulsive’ or ‘automatic’ system) and the slower, deliberative system 2 (the ‘reflective’ system). Much of our behaviour is routine and repeated in similar ways in similar contexts: making coffee in the morning, travelling to work, checking our email. Such behaviours develop into habits, and we are able to successfully perform them with minimal conscious input and cognitive effort. This is because they come under the control of our impulsive system.

Habits have become a focus of health promoters. It seems that many of these routine, repeated behaviours actually have a significant impact on our health over a lifetime: what we eat and drink and how active we are can affect our risk of developing chronic diseases like type II diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and cancer. Despite considerable efforts to educate people as to the risks of eating too much, exercising to little, smoking and drinking, many people continue to engage in such unhealthy habits. One reason for this, it is proposed, is people’s limited ability to exert conscious (reflective) control over their habitual (impulsive) behaviour.

Given this, one might think that it would be preferable if people were generally able to exhibit more reflective control; that behaviour was less frequently determined by impulsive processes and more frequently determined by reflective deliberation. Perhaps this could form part of the basis for advising people to be more ‘mindful’ in their everyday activities, such as eating, and regimes for training one’s willpower ‘muscle’ to ensure confident conscious control over one’s behaviour. Continue reading

Organ Donation: Presumed Consent and Focusing on What Matters

Recent newspaper reports covered the story of Jemima Layzell, a 13 year old who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2012. According to reports, shortly before Jemima died, the subject of organ donation had come up in discussions with her family, prompted by the death of a family friend in a car accident. As a result, Jemima’s family were confident she would have wanted her organs to be donated. Subsequently, Jemima’s kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, small bowel and heart were transplanted. This meant that a record eight people’s lives were saved, prolonged or dramatically enhanced as a consequence of Jemima’s and her family’s decision.

Decisions about organ donation are extremely difficult. Family members are approached about the prospect of donating their loved one’s organs at a time of extraordinary distress. Uncertainty about the wishes of the person who has died, along with confusion or scepticism about brain death criteria, religious or other spiritual beliefs about bodily integrity, fear about how donated organs will be used, and inability or unwillingness to engage with any form of decision-making can result in the refusal of family members to allow organs to be donated. In England, family members can prevent donation even when the individual has expressed a wish to donate her organs, for instance, by signing up to the organ donor register. Continue reading

Animal Welfare, Reducing Meat Consumption and the Instrumental Use of Moral Reasons

Author: Rebecca Brown

In this post, I consider how moral reasons may be used instrumentally – that is, to bring about some desired end. I take as an example the public debate around reducing meat consumption. I suggest that although animal welfare is recognised as important in a number of contexts, it is rarely used as a reason to develop policy to promote plant-based diets. I question whether the (possible) instrumental ineffectiveness of animal welfare-based arguments to reduce meat consumption is a legitimate reason for leaving it out of the debate.

Reducing meat consumption

Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion around policies to reduce meat consumption, along with other animal-derived products (milk, eggs, cheese, and so on). One curious aspect of the public discussion of a move towards plant-based diets is the near absence of animal welfare as a reason for advocating policies directed at reducing the consumption of animal-derived protein. Indeed, the rather clumsy terms ‘plant-based diet’ and ‘animal-derived protein’ seem specifically designed to distance the discussion from associations with vegetarianism and veganism – two commonly understood, widespread ways to refer to diets which exclude meat and/or animal-derived products. Vegetarian and vegan are associated with established movements and sets of beliefs which typically (though not exclusively) identify welfare as an important, perhaps decisive, reason to avoid farming animals.

Instead of pointing to animal welfare as a reason to reduce meat consumption, advocates of such policies point to the harmful impact on the environment and the health of consumers that results from the farming and consumption of animals. First, it is argued that rearing livestock is generally a less efficient means of producing food than growing crops, and contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the consumption of animal-derived protein (particularly red and processed meat) is associated with increased risk of a range of diseases. (More details of these arguments are available in recent reports from researchers at the Oxford Martin School and Chatham House).

There are at least three broad reasons for encouraging people to adopt plant-based diets:

  1. Reasons based on a concern for the environment
  2. Reasons based on a desire to promote health
  3. Reasons based on concerns about (non-human) animal welfare

It seems curious that this third (animal welfare-related) reason is rarely reported or discussed in support of policies to encourage plant-based diets, except through animal rights organisations and groups like the Vegetarian Society.

Why avoid animal welfare?

Continue reading

Are Incentives Corrupting? The Case of Paying People to be Healthy.

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

Financial incentives are commonplace in everyday life. As tools of states, corporations and individuals, they enable the ‘tweaking’ of motivations in ways more desirable to the incentiviser. A parent may pay her child £1 to practice the piano for an hour; a café offers a free coffee for every nine the customer buys; governments offer tax breaks for homeowners who make their houses more energy efficient. Most people, most of the time, would probably find the use of financial incentives unobjectionable.

More recently, incentives have been proposed as a means of promoting health. The thinking goes: many diseases people currently suffer from, and are likely to suffer from in the future, are largely the result of behavioural factors (i.e. ‘lifestyles’). Certain behaviours, such as eating energy dense diets, taking little exercise, smoking and drinking large amounts of alcohol, increase the risk that someone will suffer from diseases like cancer, heart disease, lung disease and type II diabetes. These diseases are very unpleasant – sometimes fatal – for those who suffer from them, their friends and family. They also create economic harms, requiring healthcare resources to be directed towards caring for those who are sick and result in reduced productivity through lost working hours. For instance,the annual cost to the economy of obesity-related disease is variously estimated as £2.47 billion£5.1 billion and a whopping $73 billion (around £56.5 billion), depending on what factors are taken into account and how these are calculated. Since incentives are generally seen as useful tools for influencing people’s behaviour, why not use them to change health-related behaviours? Why not simply pay people to be healthy? Continue reading

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