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Naked flesh and the science of ropes

February 27, 2011

Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters/Corbis

Close relatives of people with a history of malignant skin cancer continue to sunbathe without sun protection, according to a new study in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Public Health. Young women in particular are ignoring health advice in pursuit of the beauty benefits they believe a suntan brings. 

The study looked at first-degree relatives of Melanoma cases across a range of demographic, psychological and social criteria. Researchers found that having a melanoma sufferer in the same family – which increases the likelihood of contracting the disease – was not enough to deter excessive sunbathing.

What’s happening here? The evidence linking exposure to the sun and melanoma is well established. Public awareness is pretty solid. Sun creams with a high-protection factor are widely available. The medical advice is unambiguous. It’s even well known that excessive sun damages beautiful skin! So why do so many people continue to do something that can so clearly harm them in future?

A possible clue to this behaviour might be found in Game Theory, where the risky sunbathers could be said to be demonstrating dynamic inconsistency. This concept is based upon a disparity between the decisions we make as our ‘present self’ and those made by our ‘future selves’. Put simply, the decisions we make for our future today are based upon a logic that may not be appropriate when that future arrives. In Behavioural Economics, this is known as time inconsistency. A crucial cognitive bias means that we tend to value the needs of our present selves far higher than any future self.

A melanoma

For example, our young sunbather may believe that the short-term beauty benefits of looking tanned outweigh the more serious health problems that might occur in future – even if the dangers are well known. This bather isn’t ‘insane’ – just cognitively biased. They might resolve to change their bathing practices in the future when the health consequences are more of a priority. But the problem is, when they get to that future – a week, a month, a year later – their future selves are now their present selves, which are still biased towards thinking of short-term beauty over  long-term harm. So they continue to bathe harmfully today – resolving to do something about it in future. For this bather, the old cliché that “tomorrow never comes” is a reality. Until one day tomorrow does come – in the form of malignant melanoma.

Dynamic inconsistency effects have been widely studied in social systems such as politics, market economics and health planning. It can be found in the behaviour of smokers, short-term government policymakers and addicted gamblers alike. Reactions to the latest evidence supporting human-induced climate change may also suggest that a large part of the earth’s population is playing a dangerous game of “tomorrow never comes” with the environment. When it comes to acting decisively to offset global warming today, is our collective behaviour any more rational than those sunbathers?

The BioMed study reminds me of a word that I keep hearing in scientific discourse with regard to citizens who choose not to live their lives according to strict scientific evidence. This is often applied to those who have a religious or superstitious belief. The word is “irrational”. In the rarefied environment of science, the adjective is perfectly apt. It describes arguments or actions lacking objective reasoning. Yet in wider society, to be ‘irrational’ is a far more loaded term. It can mean silly, over-emotional, unhinged, absurd, fanciful, or just plain crazy. There is an unappealing rhetoric hidden in the word that ties ideas of sanity and maturity to the application of a dispassionate evidence-based logic. Yet I find this usage disingenuous. How many of us can truly say – scientists included – that we exercise full rationality at all times? How many of us have ever acted out of vanity, or love, or jealousy, or greed, or a million other motives – contrary to the cold logic of a particular situation?

Are we mad not to be wholly rational? Or are we just human? And when this tendency turns dangerous for our health, happiness or the planet, how can science best protect us against the dangerous long-term stuff, whilst acknowledging our innate tendency to be less than fully rational in the here-and-now?

A famous example of a strategy to combat dynamic inconsistency comes from Greek mythology. In the Odyssey, the Sirens were a race of bird-women whose seductive song would enchant unsuspecting sailors and lure them to their deaths. Odysseus was curious to hear their famed song, but knew that – once heard – his judgement would be fatally impaired. So he ordered his men to stop up their own ears with beeswax, and then tie him tightly to the main mast with rope. Most importantly, he ordered them to ignore any of his later pleas to be released as the ravings of an irrational mind. When the siren’s song later afflicted him, the rope held fast and the sailors ignored Odysseus’s orders until they were past danger.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), ''Ulysses and the Sirens'' (1891). Public Domain.

Odysseus was aware of his own impending dynamic inconsistency – knowing that his current needs would likely lead to conflicting wants that would threaten his wellbeing. So he’d devised a long-term strategy to constrain his future irrational actions using rope. This is what the economists would call a commitment mechanism. Enforcing future wellbeing by using the wisdom of the present to offset one’s own dynamic inconsistency.

Perhaps there is a more general lesson for science in this mythical rope trick. There seems little to be gained from condemning people for their “irrationality” in the face of such evidence. If we can separate the idea of “irrational” from that of “stupid” or “deluded”, then we might begin to see such studies as a manifestation of complex human behaviours – and not simply an example of ignorance, or a lack of ‘scientific literacy’. Then we can focus our energy on devising commitment mechanisms that offset the biases we all possess – and abandon the flawed idea that presentation of compelling data is enough in itself to induce beneficial change.

One solution in the sunbathers case might be to work harder with policy makers, media, fashion and educators to replace society’s beauty image of the “perfect suntanned body” with a paler, more natural and less damaging body image – as is suggested here. In this way, we would acknowledge a common human desire to appear beautiful, whilst tying bathers into actions with long-term benefits –  in this case, seeking a body image that doesn’t kill. And there would be no “idiots” involved.

If science is to turn its facts into long-term benefits, then maybe it needs to stop complaining that the public’s ears are blocked with beeswax, and learn to be a more effective rope maker.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 11:56 pm

    Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site unintentionally, and I am shocked why this coincidence did not happened in advance! I bookmarked it.

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