Why do individuals engage in behaviors that can yield deleterious consequences to self, be it immediately or in the future? The classic answer from policy makers is that this must be due to a lack of education
regarding the issue at hand. Provide the necessary information to the relevant target groups, and this should hopefully curb the negative behaviors.
For example, you’d like to stop young males from driving so recklessly. Educate them about the dire outcomes of this form of risk-taking (injury or death to self and/or others), and they’ll tow the proverbial line. The “provision of information” approach is the apparent panacea to all such undesirable behaviors, be it smoking, living a sedentary lifestyle, eating too much fat, or engaging in high-risk unprotected sex.
In two of my books, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, I spend quite a bit of time critiquing this incomplete solution and at times false premise. In doing so, I offer a Darwinian explanation for each of several manifestations of dark side consumption including pathological gambling, eating disorders, compulsive buying, pornographic addiction, extreme risk-taking, and excessive sun tanning, topics that I’ll return to in future posts.
In today’s post, I’d like to briefly tackle the last example from the latter list: excessive sun tanning. If the “lack of information made me do it” theory were veridical, one should expect that women would be less likely to engage in the behavior than men, as they have been found to be more knowledgeable about the negative consequences of sun exposure. The cumulative research finds the exact opposite effect, namely women are much more likely to suntan (both natural sun and via artificial sun beds).
In a 2006 paper that I coauthored with Albert Peng, a good friend and practicing dermatologist, we applied an evolutionary lens to explain many of the key findings stemming from the sun tanning literature. Fully congruent with an evolutionary perspective, young single women were the most likely group to suntan. To the extent that a tan is associated with health and beauty in Western society, one would expect that the pursuit of this aesthetic cue would be most prevalent amongst this particular demographic group. Note that in other cultures where skin color has been used as a cue to social status (lighter implying higher status) one finds an increased use of procedures and products meant to lighten the skin.
In the same way that reckless driving is a “single young male” syndrome, excessive sun tanners are much more likely to be single young women. As I explain in my books, these dark side consumption phenomena are maladaptive firings of an otherwise adaptive process (typically within the mating arena). Not surprisingly then, many of these occurrences possess a universally robust sex-specificity because they are rooted in evolved biological realities that transcend time and place.
From a policy-making perspective, the provision of information is valuable but insufficient. In addition, policy makers must identify the evolutionarily based sex-specific triggers that are likely to be maximally persuasive. For example, telling young women that they might contract melanoma in some distant future is not relevant to their operative time horizon (“must look good for tonight’s party”).
In our paper, Peng and I discuss a study (Feldman et al., 2001) that found that individuals discount the future consequences of sun tanning for its immediate benefits. To young single women, the nearly immediate skin damage that will result from excessive sun tanning (and the corresponding loss of aesthetic beauty) might be more palpable than the risks of contracting a skin disease later in life. Similarly advising young male smokers of the increased incidence of imminent impotence is more persuasive than providing odds ratios of suffering from heart disease in forty years. The evolutionary triggers that are uniquely operative for a given demographic group in part determine the persuasiveness of a public policy message targeted at the group in question.
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