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Why do we stick to our bad habits?

Factors such as the need for social acceptance and plain old human defiance play roles in persistent bad habits, says a study.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2006 14:51 IST

A University of Alberta researcher seems to have found the reason behind the persistence of bad habits.

Dr Cindy Jardine said that people continue to stick to their bad habits because they aren't getting at the underlying reasons behind bad habits or risky behaviour.

She further said that in two recent case studies when she asked people 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 that knowledge wasn't enough to motivate them to change their ways.

In the first case study conducted by Jardine, 1,200 people in Alberta were surveyed in both 1994 and 2005.

It was found that lifestyle habits like 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, stress and alcohol uses were ranked as ‘very dangerous’ by a chunk of the respondents.

Jardine said that when asked about personal and community health issues, the respondents in the second survey freely acknowledged that they knew about the hazards of risky behaviour, such as - choosing to drive while impaired, about second-hand cigarette smoke and about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

"So they know alcohol is bad, but risk communicators aren't looking at the underlying reasons why people drink--poverty, unemployment, there is a history of abuse in some of these families. If we could get to the underlying issues of what turns people to drink, we would do better in fully understanding the context of their lives," Jardine said.

"If we're just telling people what we know about the health risks, chances are we aren't going to solve any problems," she added.

The study suggested that factors such as the need for social acceptance and plain old human defiance play roles in persistent bad habits.

"We get a sense of belonging that is important to us. We can see ourselves as part of a social structure; it's very hard to change a behaviour if it is still accepted socially," Jardine said.

"For instance, stress is bad for us, yet we wear it as a badge of honour. It is seen as a socially desirable thing to be overworking. We don't seem to have the same respect for people who work a 40-hour week."

Jeradine concluded by saying that researchers and other risk communicators need to talk to the people they're trying to reach, before forming messages.

"We need to listen more to the things that really concern people and to look at social norms and why they are starting to dictate our actions. We as a society have to rethink and challenge those norms," she said.

First Published: Nov 08, 2006 13:19 IST