Reckless or social?

Posted by on Aug 15, 2010 in behaviour change | 4 Comments

A week ago, one of the UK's most senior physicians (Prof Steve Field, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners) had a provocative piece published in the Observer about the need for Brits to take personal responsibility for their own individual health.

"The truth is that too many of us neglect our health, and this is leading to increasing levels of illness and early death"

Few of us can disagree with this (although a longer term view might find a comparison with Victorian Britain's health illuninating).

Where the good Doctor stirred things up is by criticising the fact that most of don't like to be told our lifestyle is unhealthy.

"Too many people do not face up to the hard facts, as they perceive them to be an attack aimed, in particular, at the poorer members of society. But it is impossible to argue on medical or ethical grounds that such behaviour is acceptable."

At the time, I found myself pondering (from the safe distance of Brittany) how little understanding of behaviour change and how such things as obesity and smoking (and their healthier corollories) spresd such a senior medical professional seemed to have. Telling people what they ought to do, even giving them the facts is unlikely to change much – I knew the facts of smoking and its likely damage to my health but still persisted for years.

A week on, the Observer has published a huge correspondence in response to the piece – largely critical of Field's opinions, it should be noted.

Much of it is considered and helpful but almost all of it misses the big point about this kind of thing: far from being "reckless" or "immoral" or "irrational" behaviour by independent individuals, over-eating, smoking and alchohol abuse tend to be things that spread through social means, as for example, Christakis and Fowler point out (in my fave book of last year).

We do these kinds of things because those around us are doing them, not because we are – any of us – acting independently. We are social not reckless.

Until the medical profession and their advisors get their heads around the importance of the Social, nothing much is going to change in terms of the population's health.

But, dear Minister of Health, leaving us to our own devices isn't going to help either…


  1. Digitalanthro
    August 16, 2010

    I can’t help thinking of Durkheim on the social origins of individual thought. I.e. Prof Fields’ outlook seems to be grounded in theories about the rational actor/self regarding individual, when there is a v. long tradition of sociological opposition to this.

  2. Mark Earls
    August 17, 2010

    Absolutely agree. Most anthroplogists would also agree with you here, I suspect.

  3. fernando
    September 7, 2010

    But we are rational individuals.
    We are the only species that can choose to think or avoid doing so. When you evade the facts of reality, when you don’t think (in this case about the consequences of smoking or over eating) reality will come back and bite you in the (now fat) ass.
    Then again, with a social system of medicine that doesn’t punish you for making the wrong decisions (hmmm…if I smoke and get cancer, who’s going to pay for my care? NOT me!) it is easier to decide not to think.
    It is the leech, the dependent, the second-hander who avoids personal responsibility and assigns all of it to “society” in order to have something to blame other than himself for all the ills his evasions bring him.

  4. Mark Earls
    September 7, 2010

    We CAN behave as such, Fernando, but it is much rarer than any of us would like to admit…… whatever culture you’d like to think of.
    that is one of our regular themes here at HERD – the fundamentally social nature of our species and the unavoidably social context for human behaviour.
    As the psychologist Nick Humphrey put it in his landmark paper, The Social Function of Intellect
    “I have yet to hear of any example from the field of a chimpanzee (or for that matter a Bushman) using his flu capacity for inferential reasoning in the solution of a biologically relevant pracical problem.. Someone may retort that if a ethologist had kept watch on Einstein through a pair of field glasses he might well have come to the conclusion that Einstein too had a humdrum mind. But that is just the point: Einstein, like the chimpanzees, displayed his genius at rare times in “artificial” situations – he did not use it, for he did not need to use it, in the common world of practical affairs”.
    We can be independent rational agents, but most of the time we aren’t. It’s not really what makes us human