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The Myth of Homo Economicus – And Why it Matters in Health Promotion

By Rebecca Johnson

One of my favorite podcasts is called Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything. Recently I listened to an episode where the concept of Homo Economicus was playfully explored. It occurred to me that this might be an interesting concept for health and workplace wellness professionals to consider, especially now as the health promotion landscape is gradually adopting a new paradigm.

In a nutshell, Homo Economicus is the name given for the type of human being many economic theories are built upon. Home Economicus, or “Econs” for short, are humans who consistently think rationally and make logical decisions that support their greatest economic interests and happiness.  Econs always save faithfully for retirement, spend money only in places where their rewards will be maximized, and resist choices that are financially unwise.

Sound like anyone you know? Me either.businessman-eating-hamburger-at-desk

And that’s the point. As many economists will tell you, not too many of us actually fall into the Homo Economicus group, despite the fact that many theories in behavioral economics are based on the concept. Instead, humans are often irrational, unaware of the motivations driving our behavior, and frequently responding to emotions rather than logic and reason.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we all behaved like Econs all the time, the world would be a colder place, missing some of the warmth, compassion, and generosity that humans so frequently demonstrate when we don’t have our own self-interests foremost in our mind. If humans were all so predictable and similar, life might feel a little bland and unexciting.

So what does this have to do with health promotion? You may already see the connection.

In some ways, the health promotion field expects humans to behave as if we are always rational, predictable, and able to make choices that are in our ultimate self-interest. If this were true, most of us would consistently eat in a way that fuels our body optimally, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, minimize stress, seek medical attention when needed, and resist urges to behave in ways that diminish our well-being. And if, for some reason, we are not doing these things, we would make logical and rational decisions to change our behaviors and stick to those changes.

Sound like anyone you know? Me either.

I’m not suggesting that humans are incapable of being logical and making decisions that support our greatest potential. Most of us have really inspiring examples from our own lives of making difficult changes that moved us into a greater state of well-being and quality of life–and we’ve seen that happen in others as well. It’s just that changing our behaviors for the long term is a complicated endeavor that doesn’t usually follow a predictable, linear path. Our behaviors are often driven by beliefs, thoughts, and feelings we aren’t even aware of or don’t know how to change. The complexities of our bodies, brains, relationships, and environment have untold effects on what we eventually choose to do or not do. We are not simple beings, and we are not living in a simple world.

The more I learn about the complexity of human nature and the change process, the more I understand that part of our mission as health promotion professionals must be to embrace this complexity and design our interactions with those we’re trying to help in ways that align with, rather than conflict with, that complexity. Partly, this means helping people develop greater awareness about themselves holistically–their brains, their bodies, their relationships, their environments, and the many other things that influence behavior.  Rather than focusing on the behavior itself, we need to help people dig more deeply, pay attention to their internal and external experiences, pause and reflect, shift thinking, respond effectively to emotions, and make more intentional decisions. We need to help people aim for progress instead of an ideal; expect change to be curvy and unpredictable; and remove the guilt associated with not meeting a pre-determined health standard or metric.

One of the many reasons I love our approach to mindful eating is because it attends to these important objectives.  For example:

  • Instead of focusing on rule-driven behaviors about what and how much to eat, mindful eating helps us uncover the root causes of our struggle with food, activity, and our bodies. Over time, we develop a more effective set of beliefs, thoughts, and feelings which create the foundation for lasting change in our behaviors.
  • The practice of mindful eating encourages us to pause, identify what’s going on inside ourselves and in our environment, and intentionally choose how we’ll respond. Even if we decide to respond in a way that serves a short term desire but isn’t in our long term best interests, we get to do so freely and without judgment or guilt.
  • Mindful eating acknowledges that perfection is not possible or even necessary with eating–or anything else. As part of the transformation in our relationship with food and ourselves, we learn to expect setbacks and use them as lessons and opportunities for growth.
  • Instead of focusing on pre-determined guidelines about how much physical activity is “enough,” which can be overwhelming and counterproductive, mindfulness helps us shift our perspective on activity altogether. Exercise goes from being a “should” (there’s that guilt again!) to being an opportunity to experience joy and connect with one’s body, with other people, or even with nature.

Honestly, I wish at times the Homo Economicus group really existed and that I was a part of it. (I would certainly have to spend far less energy worrying about items that seem to mysteriously appear on my credit card!) But just as often, I see the magic and beauty of being a complex, unpredictable human being capable of poor, self-defeating choices, astounding positive change, and everything in between.

As health professionals, we’ll better serve those we’re trying to help if we embrace the distinctly un-Econ nature of human beings and ensure that our approach capitalizes on human strengths and honors human imperfections.

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

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