Prey to temptation: Our struggle with irrational health choices

Making healthy choices isn’t always easy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all like to think of ourselves as rational individuals — making decisions according to the best available information for a beneficial outcome. But over the past few decades, the burgeoning field of behavioural economics has made it abundantly clear that humans are not always rational beings. In many of the financial decisions we make, we fall victim to the mental short-cuts and ‘rules of thumb’ that govern our behaviour. We end up making decisions that seem to defy logic, and work against our own long-term goals and desires.

Work by Daniel Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky and others that integrated behavioural psychology with economics earned Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. Researchers are now looking at how the principles of behavioural economics can be applied to fields beyond finance, to understand how we make decisions in other areas of life. And what better field than health, where we often struggle to make the right choices — often despite a plethora of available information.

In the latest episode of Up Close, I was joined by Professor Ichiro Kawachi, to discuss how behavioural economics can be applied to public health and health behaviour change. Ichiro Kawachi is Professor of Social Epidemiology, and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Less than us: Are people hardwired to dehumanize others?

People can be quick to dehumanise others (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe has traditionally been helpful in times of war or conflict. But there is also a very ugly side to rushing to judge others. Prejudice, especially for those who are on the receiving end, is an incredibly dehumanising experience — to be dismissed by another person takes away from us our sense of individual human worth. But what does it mean to be dehumanised, and how or why are people capable of dehumanising others? Also, how aware are we of the snap judgments that we make about other people, and can we control the biases we have?

Social psychologist Prof Nick Haslam and I discuss what it means to be dehumanised, and how people are capable of viewing and treating their fellow human beings as less than themselves on this episode of Up Close.

Where’s your compassion? Generation Y and the new empathy deficit

Do Gen Y lack empathy? (Photo credit: Anders Ljungberg)

Humans are extraordinarily social creatures – our ability to form complex communities where we exchange goods and services, as well as knowledge, has no doubt been essential to our success as a species. Empathy is central to our desire to care for and connect with our fellow human beings – whether they are close friends or family, or others in the community that rely on the generous donations of strangers.

But are all humans empathic by nature, or are there some amongst us who struggle to see any perspective other than their own? Are we as empathic as our parents and grandparents, and what are the implications for society as a whole if empathy is on the wane?

I spoke to social psychologist Sara Konrath, from the University of Michigan, about intergenerational differences in empathy, and how this important social attribute seems to be diminishing in Generation Y in the latest episode of Up Close. Sara is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Carrots that stick: Rethinking pleasure and pain as human motivators

Man thinking on a train journey.
How to motivate – an age-old question. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s an eternal question for parents, teachers and managers the world over – how does one person go about motivating another to perform a task, and to perform it well? Even on a personal level, we often struggle to muster the enthusiasm to achieve the goals that we set ourselves – whether it’s to exercise regularly, to answer all those emails, or to learn Mandarin.

The traditional answer to these motivational challenges is reward and punishment – carrots and sticks. Bonuses can encourage employees to up their sales performance, for example; and for children, the prospect of not being permitted to go out and play often ensures that homework gets done.

But perplexingly, incentives and disincentives don’t always work. Continue reading “Carrots that stick: Rethinking pleasure and pain as human motivators”