Why we all carry on with those bad habits

If you have ever wondered why so many people continue to ignore public warnings and advertisements about the dangers of smoking, drinking alcohol and other habits that we know to be bad for us, a Canadian researcher may have the answer.

Dr. Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says we persist with habits and behaviours which are risky because we don't tackle the reasons why we are doing them.

Dr. Jardine, says in two recent case studies where people were asked to rate the danger of various types of risks including lifestyle habits, it was clear that they understood what types of behaviour are the riskiest, but the knowledge was not enough to motivate them to change their ways.

She says the results showed in fact that people have a very realistic understanding of the various risks in their lives and risk communicators need to look at other factors which have not been considered before.

The first case study looked at 1,200 people in Alberta who were surveyed in both 1994 and 2005.

Lifestyle habits such as cigarette smoking, stress and sun-tanning were ranked as the top three risks, being considered more dangerous to the Alberta public than technology or pollution hazards such as chemical contamination, ozone depletion and sour gas wells.

Cigarette smoking was ranked as "very dangerous" by 53 per cent of those surveyed in 1994 and by 60 per cent of the respondents surveyed in 2005.

Stress was ranked as "very dangerous" by 54 per cent of the people in 1994 and by 65 per cent in 2005. In contrast, sour gas wells were ranked as "very dangerous" by only 24 per cent of the people in 1994 and by 28 per cent in 2005.

The second case study, involving a survey conducted in two northern Aboriginal communities in Canada revealed similar results.

Again, lifestyle risks were seen as the most hazardous and almost everyone in the communities ranked risk associated with alcohol use (96 to 100 per cent of the respondents) and smoking (80 per cent of respondents) as "very dangerous".

Risks associated with trace contaminants and doing traditional activities in a harsh environment were ranked as less risky.

When asked about personal and community health issues, those in the second survey freely acknowledged that they knew about the hazards of risky behaviour like choosing to drive while impaired, about secondhand cigarette smoke and about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, when unborn babies are damaged by their mothers' alcohol consumption.

Jardine says they know alcohol is bad, but risk communicators are not looking at the underlying reasons why people continue to drink rather than the underlying issues of what turns people to drink.

She says just telling people what we know about the health risks will not solve the problems.

The study suggests factors such as the need for social acceptance and human defiance play roles in persistent bad habits, and it is very hard to change a behaviour if it is still acceptable socially.

Jardine says until the psychology behind risky behaviour is really understood, people won't give up their vices, no matter how much they know.

She suggests researchers and other risk communicators need to talk to the people they're trying to reach, before forming messages and listen to the things that really concern people.

Jardine presented her findings recently at the RiskCom 2006 Conference in Sweden.

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