Death Becomes Us

In Do the Right Thing, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, highlights new research that “our decisions kill us.” He draws on the work of Ralph Keeney, whose paper (pdf) Personal Decisions Are the Leading Cause of Death, uses US data to show that “44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour.”

This phenomenon is not limited to developed/industrial countries. Nicholas Kristof writes:

If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

And it’s not just premature deaths and worse education, these types of behaviors cost a lot. Just take the May headline, Governments’ Drug-Abuse Costs Hit $468 Billion, Study Says. Most of those costs were in health or law enforcement, with just 2 percent spent on prevention, treatment, and research.

This is where we need really innovative approaches to understanding consumption, human decision making, and how we regulate our behavior. Behavioral economics is not all that; we do WEIRD research, instead of MYOPICS studies; we say poverty poisons the brain, but forget about just how poverty comes to be; we blame bad behavior on bad hormones, rather than doing more substantive work to understand people’s behavior.

Neuroanthropology can offer novel approaches, from understanding the development of addiction in four steps to better grasping the integrated dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder to examining different components of food, obesity and eating and understanding the complexities of video games and other modern obsessions.

These problems are not all caused by biological mechanisms or social construction, they are not all rooted in human psychology or deviations from rationality. They are human phenomena, requiring that we integrate ideas across multiple domains. To do that, anthropology needs psychology and neuroscience, just as they need anthropology. The impact of what we DO is enormous. And I’m betting that understanding what we do better will help us become more human – to find ways to deal with our own decisions and flaws, not just through technical fixes or imposed solutions, but also through finding ways to better promote our potential.

One thought on “Death Becomes Us

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Round Up #115 « Neuroanthropology

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