Risk Remedies

Risk Remedies

In the board game “Monopoly,” getting a “get out of jail free” card makes landing in jail much less of a worry. Is there a similar effect in real life?


How safeguards can backfire. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If there were a cure for lung cancer, would you start smoking? A recent study by University of Florida marketing professor Joel Cohen and his colleagues offers some insight. They found that for people predisposed to risky behaviors, like smoking and gambling, learning about potential remedies for the problem made them more likely to downplay the risk and indulge. But for people who had no such vices, the information had the opposite effect.


The availability of a remedy would only convince confirmed non-users that boy, there are serious risks here. And it confirms the correctness, the soundness, of their judgment to avoid the behavior.

So, ironically, marketing remedies can sometimes hurt the people who are most in need of help. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

This is the first study to look at the “boomerang effect” of potential remedies on a person's tendency to indulge in risky behavior. The results present some thorny problems for society and for business.

Cohen's team looked at two different risky behaviors: smoking and overspending. They compared smokers with non-smokers, and people with heavy debts with people who were in good financial health. They told them that they were being asked to evaluate websites. Some were shown a site with information about a remedy (a nicotine replacement system or a get-out-of-debt repayment program, respectively). Others were simply shown information about the risks of smoking or overspending, and suggestions for how to quit without a remedy.

The results suggest that remedies tend to reinforce your existing beliefs about the risky behavior. If you're not a smoker, you already believe that the risks of smoking outweigh the benefits. So when you read about a smoking remedy, you think: “See, look how hard it is to quit.” But if you do smoke, on some level you feel that the benefit or enjoyment of smoking outweighs the risk. And when you read about a remedy, you're more likely to think, “See, I can quit easily anytime if I want to.”

Cohen and his colleagues refer to this as “problem status.” In other words, how much of a problem is this behavior for you? Using responses to a questionnaire about their subjects' habits and attitudes, they were able to express problem status as a number: the higher the number, the more prone a person is to indulge in the risky behavior. They found that mathematically, as the problem status number increased, the likelihood of the remedy backfiring and encouraging the behavior also increased. So, ironically, remedies may undermine the very people they're trying to help.

In their paper, Cohen's team suggests that their results show the effects of “motivated reasoning.” Simply put, motivated reasoning is logic that's tainted by your personal wants and needs. Rather than looking at the facts objectively, a motivated reasoner cherry-picks evidence that he or she wants to hear. For example, a heavy smoker might focus on the wide availability of quit-smoking products and ignore the statistics showing that it's very difficult for smokers to quit. To take an example outside the study, an overeater might take the fact that chocolate contains some healthy anti-oxidant chemicals as license to consume ten Snickers bars per day, while brushing aside facts about the sugar and fat content of Snickers bars, or the dangers of obesity. In this study, smokers and over-spenders were motivated to emphasize the existence of a remedy over the risks of their behavior. As a result, they were actually more likely to take further risks.

Dealing with these findings presents a thorny problem. First of all, even if remedies like quit-smoking or get-out-of-debt programs can encourage some people to continue their bad habits, they also do help other people end them. In fact, the overall benefit of these remedies may outweigh the boomerang effect that this study identifies. For example, it's possible that more people will be able to quit smoking if a remedy is on the market than if it isn't, even if the remedy encourages some smokers to continue.

Secondly, remedies for risky habits are often produced by commercial industries, whether they're medications, nicotine patches, or debt-reduction programs. It's in these companies' interest to make their products sound as easy and effective as possible, not to remind people that stopping the behavior is difficult even with the remedy. How do you balance the companies' right to freely market their product with the public interest? These are just a few of the questions raised by these troubling findings.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What, exactly, did the study find? Were remedies like a “get out of jail free card” to everyone, or only to some people?
  2. How did the researchers use mathematics to understand the effects of remedies on risky behavior?
  3. What is motivated reasoning? How is it different from scientific reasoning? How does it relate to the study's findings?
  4. Can you think of examples of motivated reasoning you've encountered in everyday life? Do you use it? When? Do you see motivated reasoning out in the world around you? In popular culture? On television? In politics?

You may want to check out the May 5, 2006, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Emailing in your sleep, a lost planet, the risks of marketing remedies, a laser that zaps fat, and new developments in nanotechnology.

For Educators

In the NY Times Learning Network Lesson Plan Clearing the Smoke About Cigarettes, students explore the many causes and effects of cigarette smoking in order to create anti-smoking campaigns geared towards other students.

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