Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Mind-Body Beliefs Affect Health Behavior

When you believe mind and body are the same, you protect your health.

Minds are strange things.  Our conscious experience of the world feels separate from the body that we inhabit.  That is why it is so easy to believe both in ghosts (minds with no physical body) and zombies (bodies with no conscious mind).  Discussions about the relationship between mind and body happen both in college dorms and in the philosophical literature. 

 But does this discussion really matter?  That is, are there aspects of the way people live their life that are influenced by their beliefs about the relationship between mind and body?

 This issue was explored in an interesting paper in the October, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Matthias Forstmann, Pascal Burgmer, and Thomas Mussweiler.  They were interested in the relationship between people’s beliefs about mind and body and their health-related behaviors. 

 The authors reasoned that people who believe that the mind and body are separate may be less prone to do healthy things to protect the body than people who believe that the mind and body are one and the same. 

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 In one set of studies, participants read one of two essays.  One essay promoted the idea that the mind and body are separate (a philosophical position called dualism).  The other essay promoted the idea that the mind and body are one (a position called physicalism).  After reading the essay, people rated their own belief about the relationship between mind and body by looking at a series of seven pairs of circles that overlapped to different degrees.  They were asked to select the degree of overlap between the circles that reflected their belief about the relationship between mind and body.  Finally, participants answered a series of questions about health-related behaviors (like going to the gym and washing hands after using the bathroom). 

 As you might expect, people who read an essay promoting dualism rated the mind and body as more separate than those who read an essay promoting physicalism.  Participants who read about dualism also stated that they engage in fewer health-related behaviors than those who read about physicalism. 

 Of course, studies about attitudes may not reflect people’s behavior in the world.  In another study, participants were approached before eating lunch at a cafeteria.  They read an essay about either dualism or physicalism and to do the start of a memory task.  People were asked to eat lunch and then to return to complete the memory task.  After they returned, participants were asked about what they ate and also rated how healthy their lunch had been.  Participants who read about dualism ate a less healthy meal than those who read about physicalism. 

 Another study in this series had people select from among a set of cookbooks after reading about either dualism or physicalism.  Some cookbooks gave recipes for unhealthy food (barbecue or desserts) others gave recipes for healthy food (vegetarian or organic food).  People were more likely to select a cookbook with recipes for healthy food after reading about physicalism than after reading about dualism.

 Putting this all together, then, your belief about the relationship between mind and body affects your behavior.  The more that you see the mind and body as a unit, the more respect you show your body. 

 So, the next time you are faced with an opportunity to do something unhealthy, just remember that your body is deeply connected to your mind.

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 Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee).

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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