Should You Buy It?

When companies and news organizations peddle fear, should you buy it? As we’re bombarded by information that may be less than reliable, it can be hard to discern which messages to trust. Unfortunately, the medical community also peddles fear. So how do you determine whether you should buy the product or message?

  • If a spouse/partner wants you to buy a pair of shoes that hurt, should you buy them?
  • If a doctor consistently advises the most extreme treatment, should you get a second opinion?
  • If a news organization edits video that changes perception of a situation, should you base your opinion on partial information?

Determining whether or not to buy or buy into something has some commonalities:

  • It ain’t easy!
  • It’s time consuming!
  • It probably won’t be fun.

I say this, not to discourage you, but to prepare you for a task that is less than desirable but still important to your health, well-being, and quality of life.

Those of us who are avoiding gluten may be tuned into health messaging and labels more than most making us especially vulnerable to the constant bombardment of fear-based messaging.

Let’s make things easier by starting with a few things you can stop worrying about:

Gluten in shampoo or cosmetics – The gluten molecule is too large to be absorbed through your skin. (If you have an allergy to wheat, rye, barley, or malt as opposed to an intolerance, this may still be of concern.) Also, don’t eat the cosmetics. Ingested gluten is still a problem.

Longstanding childhood vaccines – These are safe, effective, and have all but eliminated suffering from smallpox, polio, and tetanus. With any medicine, there is the potential for an adverse reaction in a small number of people. That’s true of antibiotics, birth control pills, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Check ingredient list for allergens & look for recalls. Barring those, get vaccinated.

MRNA vaccines – They do not change your genetic makeup. They do not contain microchips. They do not produce severe adverse reactions in most people. This type of vaccine is easy to adapt to a variety of viruses. That means we will most likely see more and more of these. Adopt with the level of caution you approach any medication, but there’s no reason to dismiss these out of hand.

Taking nutritional supplements – If you are healthy and eat a well-balanced diet, there’s no real benefit to taking supplements.

Eating eggs – While eggs contain cholesterol, they don’t seem to raise blood cholesterol and are a near-perfect food. They may also help with nutrient absorption when eaten in raw salads.

With those out of the way, how can we determine what to embrace or leave behind?

Develop a list of reliable sources – Twitter has been a great tool for this. You could follow experts in any field to get their take on infinite topics. Now it’s a bit more dicey but look for doctors and researchers who are well respected by other scientists. Look for news sources that feel balanced. Watch for bias. Don’t give too much credence to the most visible faces on TV or those who speak for politicians. Look at track records. Get several opinions about any product or issue. Do some background research to see which of those opinions align with rigid, well-controlled studies; reflect verifiable facts; and are not reactionary.

Learn the difference between fact and opinion – It’s common to see someone online ask a “what if” question that leads to a whole narrative based on nothing but flight of fancy that’s treated as fact. And news networks often have “experts” offer lots of opinions based on zero facts. You can tell the difference, but you must listen carefully.

Beware of magical thinking – As humans, we’re always tempted to take the easy way out. We want immediate results and miracle cures. But just because we want something to be a quick fix doesn’t mean it is. Or it could mean we’ll only see short-term positive results. If you find yourself leaning into something because it sounds easier or faster than something you know will work long-term, question yourself.

Today’s example would be using a diabetes prevention drug strictly for weight loss. It’s all the rage! But we also know that once you stop using one of these drugs, the weight comes back. That means a temporary “cure” at best. And we don’t know the long-term health effects of using these drugs. That’s a risk you’re blindly assuming.

Never assume you need anything just because an ad says so – Advertising isn’t about education. It’s not about public service. It’s about getting you to buy a product or service. It may do a public service or educate at the same time, but that’s not its primary purpose.

If fear or shame is involved, beware – It’s unfortunate that companies or professions use emotional manipulation to accomplish their goals. If you feel yourself compelled to buy or buy into something because you’re afraid or feel ashamed, take a minute. Your emotions may be undermining your best judgement. Wait for the feelings to pass, then reevaluate.

Ask questions – Someone in a particular field will have a depth of knowledge you do not. Feel free to ask questions. Most are happy to share their expertise. If you hear them say, “that’s not how this works,” believe them.

The most important thing is to allow yourself to learn and shift. Sometimes new information will challenge a long-held belief. If this NEVER happens, there’s a problem. It’s statistically unlikely that you will be absolutely 100% correct all the time.

Even if you’ve carefully researched your opinion, science will advance; policies will result in unintended consequences that are not acceptable; drugs will be recalled; new facts will be revealed. All of these require adjustment.

Sometimes this means you should no longer buy something that was reasonable yesterday. This can be true in the universal sense. It can also be true on a personal level because we change, our situations change, and our health changes.

There can’t be an absolute answer to the question, should you buy it. And sometimes, we’ll make decisions we regret later. But if we’ve gathered the most reliable information we can find, reflected on potential consequences based on that information, and made a decision that we are willing to reevaluate if necessary, we’ve done all we can do. It’s okay to lean into a plan and feel good about it.

Is Bias Affecting Your Decisions?

Ever wonder how bias is affecting your decisions? It’s hard to make healthy decisions, especially these days. We have access to a ton of information. We also have access to a ton of disinformation. Bias enters the picture to add further complication.

We can carefully vet our sources, but even information from credible sources may be biased. And once we absorb information, it is subject to our own bias.

All of us are biased. Our brains use prior experience as a shortcut to form a perception of reality in the moment. If bullets have pelleted my home in a drive-by, my perception of the sound of gunfire may be quite different from someone who has only heard that sound at a gun range. Or, if I’ve only heard gunshots on TV, I may perceive a gunshot outside my home as a car backfiring.

We often remain unaware of our biases or those that have long persisted within our culture. This is as true in healthcare as it is in other areas of life.

For example, you may have had a health professional recommend a low-fat diet to improve heart health. This sounds logical, reasonable, and is a widely issued recommendation. It is easy to assume that research backs up this advice. And yet, that’s not the case.

According to a study published in 2015, a relationship of causation between fat consumption and coronary heart disease was never established. In spite of that, guidelines for fat consumption were established as if causation had been established. The guidelines were included in the 1977 McGovern report and persist in many doctors’ practices today.

Bias in policy and decision making has been on daily display during the pandemic, resulting in a mishmash of barely discernible pieces of fact-based guidance. In fact, public health guidance has been such a nightmare to navigate that I’m not going to try to decipher it here.

Instead, let’s focus on personal bias. Here are a few things to watch for when attempting to determine whether bias is influencing a decision:

Judging Yourself – Judging yourself may prevent you from recognizing bias. It can be difficult to isolate personal bias if you judge all bias as bad. Remember, bias assists your brain with processing information quickly. We are wired for this. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t interrupt the circuit. Some bias creates real harm. Still, having bias is not, in and of itself, inherently evil.

Feelings of Danger – There is no real danger in questioning beliefs. Questioning is how we progress and grow, but when we hold a belief so closely it feels like part of our internal workings – part of what makes us, us –  it can feel dangerous to question that belief. If we look too closely, we may find our sense of reality shaken. It can feel better in the moment to turn away from danger rather than face potential bias.

Lack of Perspective – Without perspective, we may not be able to turn an issue around to observe whether our view is informed, balanced, fact-based, or reasonable and whether it affects us in a positive or negative way. Further, we may not be able to see the effect our position on an issue has on others. It is hard to gain perspective from the middle of something. That’s why we have the cliché – you can’t see the forest for the trees. We must sometimes invent a way to increase distance from an issue so we can see it more clearly.

Defending the Status Quo – Discovering personal bias requires internal examination. Sometimes when we feel uncertain, we ask for another person’s opinion. External observations may be helpful when exploring the layers of a belief but substituting another’s opinion for your own assessment won’t necessarily result in ferreting out bias. In fact, relying on someone else’s opinion of your process or position may tempt you to defend the status quo.

Allowing the Past to Prevent Progress – Bias is often defended overtly and tacitly by explaining that we do things according to tradition or the way they’ve always been done. Using the past to determine the future can feel grounding and safe. And there’s no denying it’s important to learn from the past. But holding onto beliefs just because they’ve been around a long time and are widely accepted can perpetuate unhealthy bias and prevent progress.

Human nature urges us to present ourselves in the best light. Discovering bias in our beliefs and/or actions may require some detective work. It can also help us determine whether bias is influencing our decisions.

Ultimately, recognizing and eliminating bias can lead to healthier life.

Push Through or Move on

How do you determine when to push through or move on? This is an issue that keeps rearing its head for me and for others I know. It’s often discussed regarding intimate relationships or life partners, but it comes up in every area – business, finance, sports, career, parenting, friendships, recreation, and healthcare.

I’ve been reading and rereading a policy I’ll be voting on this week. I’ve seen this policy before – more than once. I pushed for changes and got a meeting with the stakeholders. Some things were changed. Some were not. I felt like that was progress.

Now I see that most of the changes I fought for are gone and the policy disregards the segment I represent more than it did the first time around. It’s not particularly surprising. Change is a constant battle in certain organizations.

But I’m a volunteer. I’m giving time and energy that might be better directed to organizations that are more receptive. And yet, the entities most resistant to change are typically the ones that most need it. Knowing that makes me feel like I should push back again.

I also realize there is a point at which pushing back creates more resistance. I can hold up a vote, but I have no real authority within the organization. I can be circumvented with a simple procedural change.

The problem in this particular instance is that the stakeholders with the most power are not concerned how this policy affects my constituents. In the past two years, many of us have had the opportunity to see this kind of disregard in action.

No policy will be perfect for everyone it affects. But when husbands, wives, CEOs, legislators, law enforcement officials, physicians, or parents lack regard for those who are governed by their policies, it becomes more likely that rules will be created that result in real harm.

I am attempting to lessen that possibility. But I’m doing so from a position with limited power and authority. And I can easily be replaced. This is a singular situation, but also a recurring theme and it always leads to the question:

How can you know when to let go?

There’s no way to be absolutely sure how any situation will play out so there’s no absolute answer to this question. The best you can do is approach the decision mindfully, exploring as many sides as you can see (the more, the better). In other words, when you can step back and incorporate many points of view, your decision will be more informed.

You can also gather input from other sources. While this is helpful, it’s important to make a decision you feel comfortable owning. If you allow another’s opinion to influence you to do something you can’t feel peace about, the decision will continue to haunt you.

Many people may advise you to make a pro/con list. That can be helpful in showing you whether you see more positive than negative about moving on or pushing through, but the items on the list may follow the human bias for justifying our actions while taking the easy way out.

Here are a few questions you may want to consider when deciding to push through or move on. The situation will help you determine which ones apply.

What are my intentions? Which action is more in line with my intentions?

What are the risks of pushing through? What are the rewards? Do the rewards align with my values?

What are the risks of moving on? What are the rewards? Do the rewards align with my values?

What will I lose if I move on? What will I gain? Which aligns more with my values?

Have I been in a similar situation in which I regretted my decision? Why did I regret it? Do I feel a need to do things differently this time? Would doing things differently be a selfish decision, or would it benefit all parties?

Can I live with myself if I move on at this point or will I feel I have neglected my duty or failed to work through some issue I need to resolve?

Do I believe I have done everything I can do and further action on my part will be more destructive than helpful?

Is there another person who may be better suited to play my role from this point forward?

Is it costing me too much to continue this work or this relationship?

Would a short break give me the perspective I need? Can I take a break and come back to the decision?

How much is fear guiding my decision? (This is a good question to ask when anger is what I feel.) Can I sit with the fear until I’m more clear on its role?

If I feel strongly about the path I should take, but am afraid, can I enlist an advocate? Who would that advocate be?

If I need allies to affect change, should I redirect my energy to building an alliance?

Do I recognize that making no decision is actually making a decision? Am I able to set a deadline for making a decision and then remove the pressure and allow myself to process through all the feelings around it?

Am I keeping in mind that behind all policies are human beings?

Humans can be kind, supportive, inclusive, and compassionate. They can also be cruel, sadistic, dismissive, manipulative, and selfish. Sometimes the cruelty is a deliberate choice. Sometimes, it’s an inadvertent result of a lack of awareness. Raising awareness will most likely have the most lasting positive effect in any given situation. But it won’t automatically make someone care about an issue you believe they should care about.

Sometimes the moment requires a strong stand. Sometimes, it requires subtle pressure over a long period of time. And sometimes, it requires walking out the door and letting go. I’ll be keeping all of this in mind as I decide my response to the policy I’m reviewing.

I wish I knew whether to push through or move on. I don’t. But I am confident I will be at peace with my decision once I make it because I trust my process.

Decision Inertia

Does decision inertia contribute to food choices? At Cooking2Thrive, we’ve long observed that adherence to specific dietary restrictions is not necessarily about the availability of compliant food or even delicious choices. While those “reasons” may dominate the rhetoric, they often don’t match actual situational decision-making.

Fear of change is terminology commonly used to explain a lack of dietary compliance. But we all encounter change every day and are able to adapt with minimal resistance which makes me wonder if that terminology accurately and adequately addresses resistance to healthy decisions. Decision inertia feels more accurate.

And while it goes without saying that behavior patterns will be individual, myriad, and layered, a willingness to sort through our particular situation and motivation is the way each of us can find a healthier path forward. For some of us, decision inertia is an important layer to consider.

What is it?

A study published in 2016, described decision inertia as “the tendency to repeat a previous choice, regardless of its outcome, in a subsequent decision.”

The significant phrase seems to be regardless of its outcome.

Why would we repeat a choice even if it has led to a poor outcome previously?

The same study cites a study (1) by Erev and Haruvy that concludes: “…there exists a strong tendency to simply repeat the most recent decision, which is even stronger than the tendency to react optimally to the most recent outcome.” 

The 2016 study seems to indicate that “this behavioral tendency is positively associated with an individual’s preference for consistency, and that the effect of decision inertia is stronger in voluntary choices than in required choices.”

How does this relate to food choices?

In general, it seems that when we’re just rocking along in life, we’ll tend to make the same decision over and over at different times and in different settings unless we believe we HAVE to make a different choice. That certainly seems true with food choices. We tend to repeatedly cook and eat our favorites. And they creep into our shopping carts even if they’re not on the list.

On the other hand, if you get food poisoning from eating at a certain restaurant, you’ll probably be less willing to eat at that restaurant because you believe you MUST make a different choice in order to avoid severe discomfort. The same is most likely true if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a food. Avoiding that food may feel voluntary until you suddenly can’t breathe. At that point, your understanding of “mandatory” avoidance of that food can shift swiftly and radically.

What about when a doctor recommends a certain diet?

Even if a doctor explains the risks, a recommendation can sound voluntary. And with voluntary decisions, we’re more likely to make the same choices we’ve always made. Even when we learn those decisions aren’t healthy, we often default to the comfort of consistency.

Can this be changed?

Of course it can. We are all ultimately in control of our decisions and we are all capable of change.

Awareness is the beginning.

Making mindful decisions and recording the outcome over a period of time can help you see patterns you may not have noticed. If you approach this with a sense of curiosity, you may learn you have some amusing tendencies. Once you’ve identified decision-making patterns, you can more easily determine what stands in the way of choosing a more healthy path.

Create a disruption.

If you can’t find a way to make yourself believe a healthy decision is mandatory, you can at least change the process so that there’s a greater chance you’ll notice when you’re about to repeat an unhealthy decision.

For example:

  • Store unhealthy snacks in a location that’s locked or requires a ladder.
  • Put items containing gluten on the “never” list on your grocery delivery service if a gluten-free diet has been recommended.
  • Eat a healthy option before you eat one that’s not recommended. The slight delay as well as the satisfaction of having eaten something may be enough to dissuade you from reverting to your former choice.

Stick with it.

Once you’ve observed, recorded, and determined ways to motivate yourself or disrupt your habits, stick with it. Eventually, the new decision will become the more consistent default.

Now’s the time.

The new year is a great time to explore decision inertia!

(1) Erev I., Haruvy E. (in press). Learning the economics of small decisions, in The Handbook of Experimental Economics, Volume 2, eds Kagel J. H., Roth A. E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press; )