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Interesting Article on Information and Choices

Posted Mar 31 2010 12:00am

This article at Science Daily reviews research into how people make decisions, even fully informed decisions, based on short-term or long-term gain.  Seems that, even when fully informed about how the long-term decision pays off way more (in the long-term), people will more often choose the route with the short-term pay-off.  From the article:

As part of the study, 78 subjects were repeatedly given two options through a computer program that allowed them to accumulate points. For each choice, one option offered the subject more points. But choosing the other option could lead to more points further along in the experiment.

A small cash bonus was tied to the subjects' performance, providing an incentive to rack up more points during the 250 trial questions.

However, subjects who were given full and accurate information about what they would have to give up in the short term to rack up points in the long term, chose the quick payoff more than twice as often as those who were given false information or no information about the rewards they would be giving up.

In a real-life scenario, a student who stayed home to study and then learned he had missed a fun party would be less likely to study next time in a similar situation -- even if that option provides more long-term benefits.

I think this gets to the essence of many issues involved in the process of therapy, at least from my perspective.  I've never been the biggest fan of "insight" as a catalyst for change.  The idea that someone gains new information, or is able to see something from a new pespective, can have value.  However, I haven't seen much evidence that such insight leads to a permanent shift towards healthier behavior.  I mean, really, who requires "insight" to learn that that Big Mac you want to eat may be quick, cheap, and easy (and satisfies a craving), but isn't as good for your long-term health compared to that salad you could make.  Everyone knows this; often, people even understand their own eating issues.  But that doesn't stop millions of people from ordering Big macs on a regular basis.  This point is touched on in the article:

"You'd think that with more information about your options, a person would make a better decision. Our study suggests the opposite," says Associate Professor Bradley Love, who conducted the research with graduate student Ross Otto. "To fully appreciate a long-term option, you have to choose it repeatedly and begin to feel the benefits."

What I point out to people who are attempting to change behavior is that information is necessary, but not suffiecient, for behavior change.  Yes, you need to know what the better alternatives are.  But how to make those alternative behaviors your new habits requires far more than simply a cognitive understanding of them.

This certainly applies in the case of addictive behavior.  On a certain intellectual level, most people with, say, an alcohol problem will have at least moments of clarity, where they gain insight into the impact their drinking is having on them.  However, this alone is rarely enough to reduce alcohol consumption.  Why?  In part (as related to the findings of the article), sobriety really sucks - from the perspective of the alcoholic.

Let me elaborate.  I think oftentimes people with good intentions will attempt to motivate a loved one or friend to address their alcohol problem with promises of what sobriety will do for them.  This, however, is not a great way to proceed.  Simply put, sobriety does nothing for alcoholic - short-term.  In fact, it tends to suck way more than alcoholism.  If it were so great, no one would need treatment.  The problem is that sobriety is a much better long-term life decision, but in the short-term, it is very uncomfortable.  This is one of the reasons AA and others will state that most people need to hit rock bottom before they get serious about recovery - becasue that's the only vantage point from which the sober lifestyle looks appealing.

I've warned clients who are attempting to quit alcohol and drug use - the next month is going to really, really suck.  You'll feel miserable, irritable, short-fused, poor sleep, etc.  However, if you can get through that month, you will then start to also experience some of the benefits of this alternative lifestyle.  Soberiety may never be easy, but it will get easier, as the advantages catch up, and then pass, the diaadvantages.  But short-term, forget it.

Another little tidbit that's important:

"Basically, people have to stay away from thinking about the short-term pains and gains or they are sunk and, objectively, will end up worse off," says Love.

This is extremely important in facilitating behavior change - filling in the empty spaces.  If you are helping someone try to quit using alcohol, to stay with the example, you can't simply focus on the "don'ts," as in: "Don't do this, don't do that, don't go here," etc.   This is a person who has spent a lot of their day thinking about drinking, thinking about where to get their drinks, actually drinking, recovering from drinking, etc.  There will be a lot of spaces in the day, both mentally and behaviorally.  What should fill in those gaps?:  Something...and that is a post for another time.  But in general, you need "Do's" too - like 90 meetings in 90 days - something to distract from the short-term pain, and to help fill in those gaps.  Otherwise, the old habits will come back, further reinforcing the undesired behavior. 



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