The Power of Suggestion: Health Habits during COVID

Human beings are susceptible to many cognitive biases. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes a cognitive bias as the unconscious process of substituting a difficult question for an easier one. For instance, if asked “Will it rain later today?” I am unlikely to conduct the sort of complicated predictive analysis necessary to say with any degree of confidence whether it is indeed likely to rain. Instead, I’ll unconsciously substitute the question asked with one that’s easier to answer, such as “Are there currently dark clouds in the sky?”

What makes this process of substitution a “bias” is that we very rarely take note of or account for it. We humans tend to operate as if our neo-cortex, the thinking part of our brain, has complete control. We’re logical, rational, and our every decision is made with intention. At least that’s how it appears in hindsight. For anyone who has studied human psychology, worked as a market researcher, or simply observed the strange behavior on display on social media, our hindsight is obviously giving an inflated account of our rationality.

And yet, despite the negative association with the word “bias,” our instinctual mental shorthand doesn’t exclusively limit us. Often enough our unconscious mental shortcuts are of remarkable benefit. We evolved to be susceptible to such mental and behavioral patterns for a reason after all; those of our ancestors who answered the easier question were quicker on their feet. For instance, the substitution of the sound of a snapping twig for the certain presence of a saber toothed tiger may well be false, or “irrational”, 9 times out of 10, but those jumpy humans who readily made that substitution stayed alive on that 10th time, unlike their cooler counterparts. “It was just a twig!” we might imagine our furry predecessor calling after his friends, right before he becomes “just lunch.”

Much has been made in recent times (particuarly on this very blog) of how our habit of substituting hard questions for easier ones is maladapted to our current technological situation. For instance, smart phone and social media companies have worked together to design an experience that takes advantage of our mental biases to addict us to their products. But what about all the ways in which substitution remains to our benefit?

We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’re surrounded by reminders physically and online that associating with others entails risk, that public spaces are potentially dangerous, that there’s something in the air, it’s bad for us, and it’s really bad for grandma. To protect ourselves from that something we can take certain precautions, such as keeping physical distance from others or wearing an N95.

And yet when this all started, I noticed a marked improvement in my own lifestyle habits and those of my friends, coworkers, and family, and many of those improvements were seemingly unrelated to respiration, airborne threats, or physical presence in public places. I thought I was a weirdo for picking up extreme cold-exposure practices from a chrismatic Dutchman online, Wim Hof, until I learned that a coworker of mine had also come to enjoy Wim’s recommended cold showers and explosive breathing techniques. I realized only after months of reading and listening that I’d become obsessed with fitness, longevity, and nutrition. I tried to trace the progression of my interest back to its source.

Thus here I am to suggest a silver lining to this global COVID debacle. I fell for a particular mental shortcut, and it completely changed my lifestyle for the better. The shortcut in question should be no stranger to those of us in marketing and advertising: I was primed. And research we, Advantage Research, recently completed with the U.S. general population suggests I wasn’t the only one.

Priming is the process of being made more receptive to information and messages on the basis of previous exposure. For example, if a friend and I discuss our love of baking before a trip to the grocery store, we’re more likely to notice and potentially purchase sweets or baking ingredients. If, while watching a football game, I see an ad in which a smiling Packer fan pours himself a tall, refreshing beer, I’m likely to trot to the fridge to crack a brew of my own, whether or not I ought to (or even, on a certain level, want to!)

My hypothesis for the source of my recent fixation on health and fitness is thus that I was primed. Surrounded by messages regarding health risk, I was ready to hear about anything health related, regardless of any impact it might have on my susceptibility to catching or spreading COVID-19 specifically.

And so I got curious: was it just me and my cold-showering coworker who had begun picking up new wellness habits in light of the unwellness going around? We decided to find out.

In a survey of the U.S. general population (with margin of error ~7%) we learned that a sizable minority of the population was indeed following a similar path. Four in ten have begun a new vitamin supplementation regimen. A quarter of the sample reported starting a new diet, reducing their sugar intake, going Keto, or trying Whole30. Just under a third of survey respondents picked up a new aerobic exercise hobby. We heard from people who, in light of the pandemic, have begun practices as seemingly unrelated to immune health as meditation and yoga.

To health-savvy readers of this blog, our survey respondents’ new healthy practices might not be seen as merely a symptom of priming since, as it turns out, certain vitamin deficiencies are associated with a higher COVID risk profile. Not to mention the overwhelming correlation between gut health and proper immune functioning, and thus a direct incentive to eat better during a pandemic. Furthermore, high levels of stress upset proper immune functioning, and therefore there’s a good argument to be made that calming practices such as meditation and yoga indeed reduce one’s risk of suffering a bad case of COVID.

Were the people who picked up these new habits doing so out of a place of rational knowledge and planning, or were they primed by all the talk around them?

And yet, who cares to solve this chicken-or-egg problem when the result is healthier people at a time when we’re particularly vulnerable? In my case, I didn’t know anything about any relationships between food, exercise, stress, and immune health before this pandemic. Now I do, and I’m better off for it, along with a sizable minority of the American population.

Our susceptibility to unconscious and irrational patterns of thought can thus lead us into behaviors that, in the end, could be interpreted as rational. I wasn’t taking cold showers because of COVID, at least so I thought, and yet it turns out I may very well have been primed to do so. Furthermore, it turns out that controlled cold exposure has strong benefits for immune health.

The caveman that runs from the snapping twig doesn’t stop to confirm it was a tiger he heard, but he lives another day regardless of the fact. Likewise, a modern person like me doesn’t stop to consider the extent to which my interests are dictated by the priming of media and conversation, and yet the result might well be, in the case of COVID and health-related information, that I live another day regardless of the fact.

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