My friend and Psychology Today Headcase blogger Eric Jaffe remains busy with his book tour, and because I have the flexible schedule of a guy who lounges all day in his underpants waiting for editors to call him back freelance writer, I agreed to contribute another guest post to his blog. It just went up, and here's an excerpt:
Most of us know that our bad choices can eventually kill us, especially when these choices become hard-to-break addictions like smoking or binge drinking or overeating. We're not usually thinking in such morbid terms each time we light up another cigarette or reach for a second piece of chocolate cake, but maybe we should be. ...
The paper (pdf here), written by operations research professor Ralph Keeney, defined a personal decision as "a situation where an individual can make a choice among two or more alternatives," and where a person is aware of these alternatives. Using data from public agencies and previous studies, the paper links causes of premature death to personal decisions:
The analysis indicates that over one million of the 2.4 million deaths in 2000 can be attributed to personal decisions and could have been avoided if readily available alternative choices were made. Separate analyses indicate 46% of deaths due to heart disease and 66% of cancer deaths are attributable to personal decisions, about 55% of all deaths for ages 15-64 are attributable to personal decisions, and over 94% of the deaths attributable to personal decisions result in the death of the individual making the decisions.
I go on to argue that if social scientists plan to do more research into the psychology of personal decision-making (as Dan Ariely recommends), they shouldn't conduct their experiments without regard to how socioeconomic factors alter the way people think.