How social cues impact health decisions

Why do Americans make the health decisions that they do? What causes people to ignore the advice of doctors, or the research results of scientists?

The public's perception of immunizations was a popular topic among the speakers.
The public’s perception of immunizations was a popular topic among the speakers.

A growing distrust of science, the movement against vaccines and the politicization of science may be at the cause. And it’s all about behavior – social science rather than science.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago, a group of four researchers addressed these questions in an informative discussion about “Using Social Science to Change Decisions and Improve Health Outcomes.”

Citing the growing distrust of science, wariness about vaccines and debatres that turn science into politics, each speaker discussed how scientists can positively affect health decision-making.

“Over the last quarter century scientific adaptations have accelerated at an amazing pace, and this has led to debates in climate change, stem cell research, genetically modified foods, nanotechnology and sustainable energy resources,” said Toby Bolsen, a professor and political scientist from Georgia State University. “The question is: why is it so difficult to achieve a consensus in many of these debates?”

Bolsen presented research and case study results that examined the effects of the politicization of science in undermining the support for and trust of scientific advice. His research has found that the public’s support for scientific issues is negatively effected by how politicized a particular issue is perceived to be. In one of his case studies, survey participants’ support for nuclear energy significantly decreased when the issue was framed as highly politicized.

Professor Wandi Bruine de Bruin discusses her research at the 2014 AAAS meeting.
Professor Wandi Bruine de Bruin discusses her research at the 2014 AAAS meeting.

“We need to educate the public about the facts associated with these things, and that will lead greater support for action in these domains,” said Bolsen. “These technologies themselves have become politicized.”

But one speaker stressed that influencing better decision-making and trust of science in the public goes beyond knowledge of facts from credible resources. Wandi Bruine de Bruin, a behavioral psychologist and professor at both Carnegie Mellon University and Leeds University, said it’s about effective communication trumping emotional reactions.

“It’s not just knowledge that is related to behavior, but also people’s emotions,” she said.

Bruine de Bruin stressed that how research is presented to the public can play an important role in the perceptions of science, and that effective communication is crucial to scientific progress.

“Know your audience, and test your messages before disseminating them,” she advised scientists in the audience.

Dr. Matthew Davis, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Michigan, and Trevor Tompson, a research scientist at the University of Chicago, offered their own perspectives on the role of social science in health decision-making. Rounding out the panel, Tompson spoke about the role of  knowledge in public opinion, while Davis discussed the influence of social science on public health policy.