The other week, the UK’s Health and Social Care minister suggested that people need to take more responsibility for their own health to reduce the number of people developing preventable illnesses, like diabetes and some cancers. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down very well with public health and health psychology professionals.  But individualising these kinds of problems isn’t uncommon, so what are the biases which might be underlying this kind of thinking?

“We need to do far more to personally take responsibilityfor our own health.”

Matt Hancock

The environment we live in and are surrounded by has a massive impact on how we behave. As mentioned in this article, the massive reduction in tobacco smoking over the past couple of decades has been due to a huge range of factors.

Of course, the people who were addicted to smoking and have since stopped played a huge part in changing their own behaviour. But how society reacts to smoking has hugely changed since the 1970s and the impact ofthis shows in the massive reduction in smoking rates. Smoking has become more expensive. It’s harder to come by in younger people and there’s a huge stigma associated with it, influenced by it now being illegal to smoke in public places.

Large no smoking sign

There are a number of biases that we all share and which niggle away in our brainy-wainys and which seem likely candidates to underlie this kind of biased thinking.

1.   Fundamental attribution error

We are more likely to attribute our own behaviour as due to environmental influences (i.e. stress from work, a crowded room making you uncomfortable) and others’ as due to their own internal traits (i.e. rudeness).

On his way home from work, Ted heads to a coffee shop and is rude to the server. He attributes his behaviour as down to being stressed sincehe’s had a really hard day at work. There was also a very long queue with people jostling and making him uncomfortable.

The server just thinks that Ted is a rude person.

It’s not clear how robust this bias is. A meta-analysis (a study that combines the results of lots of different studies) suggested that the overall effect is pretty tiny and that it doesn’t always occur. However, the studies included in this meta-analysis are all pretty small and seem to mainly use hypothetical situations to test this. Since this is a kind of non-rational thinking people might not be fully aware of, these kinds of studies areunlikely to be the best at tapping this.

2.    Just world fallacy

We assume that people get what they deserve.

Ted thinks that he’s a good person, he doesn’t actively try to hurt people ever. He also tries to watch what he eats and hopes that this will be enough to stop him from getting ill.

This is another of the so-called self-serving biases. It suggests that we like to think that there is some order to how things are and if we behave in a certain way (we are morally ‘good’ people, look after our health etc.) we will have a ‘good’ life.

3.    Unrealistic Optimism

Generally, we underestimate how likely it is for bad things (e.g. developing an illness, being the victim of a crime) to happen to us.

If you asked Ted how likely he is to get cancer in the next 20 years compared to someone else, he’s pretty likely to underestimate his chances.

Happy looking toy sheep beside a travel mug with text that reads 'today is gonna be a good day'

We are rubbish at estimating how likely we are to experience something negative, particularly when we’re comparing our chances against someone else’s.

Although there are a few different things that make you more or less likely to think this (how much you know about the other person, your mood, or whether you have depression).

All together now

These three biases are all potentially going on at once, along with a load of others that I haven’t mentioned but which could also be influential. But ultimately, they bias us into thinking that we probably have more control over our lives than we do. (See S3, ep 7 of The Good Place for a forking good explanation of determinism vs. free will from a philosophical perspective).

via GIPHY

Like I said earlier, our environment has a major influence over our behaviour. So, blaming individuals for societal problems and the consequences of these is a pretty useless sticking plaster over a gaping great wound.

That’s not to say that our individual behaviours don’t influence our health. They do. But it makes it a hell of a lot easier if the wider world we’re a part of can help us to do that, rather than making it really hard to be healthy.

Overcoming bias is tricky. And it takes effort to retrain thinking processes and certain types of self-serving bias are useful for maintaining our sense of self-esteem. But it’s important to recognise that these biases influence the way that we see the world. Maybe we need to take the time to check our thinking or we’ll end up with teeny tiny little plasters to stick together the gaps forming in our society.

Want to read more?

Interested in social psychology? You can read about social influence in my previous posts or about how we can better understand our world through stories.

If you’re interested in reading about psychology and writing, or psychology and social media you might want to take a look at my other posts on social influence and social media. Or how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are.