Maybe your latest go-to health food is pomegranates, or pomegranate juice. (Full of antioxidants!) Perhaps you swear by meditation, by herbal remedies, by acupuncture.
Are you convinced they add to quality of life and help you come back from injury or illness? Do you eschew more traditional medicine and procedures as a result, or use these alternatives to supplement what physicians recommend?
These are sweeping questions in an area that is more complex than it appears on the surface, and likely better served by specifics.
That said, my curiosity has been piqued by an article entitled “Why Smart People Are Dumb Patients” as Daily Beast takes on the issue of psychological “magical thinking” when it comes to medical care.
Using an extreme example (Steve Jobs and his fight with cancer), the article explores the reasons that intelligent people may reject proven medical treatments, and instead put their faith in other (less “scientific”) options.
Magical Thinking or Healthy Mistrust?
Jean Kim writes:
… The area of modern medicine seems particularly feared by people who otherwise employ reasonable amounts of logic to the world around them. It’s perfectly normal—important, even—for people to be anxious about health and illness… Yet the hardest thing about illness for people to face can be the lack of control, the uncertainty around one’s fate. People notoriously avoid the doctor for this reason; magical thinking pops in.
As I consider my own history with regard to medical care, I generally follow (traditional) doctors’ orders – or did – when it comes to major issues. Childbirth comes to mind. But my personal experience has been a mixed bag including years of runaround for two separate conditions – one eventually dealt with well, and the other, a matter of an aggravating injury.
I could pen a position of my own, which I might title “Why Dumb Treatments are Proposed by (Theoretically) Smart Professionals.” Among the offenders: intrusive interventions with significant risks, the pushing of pills compliments of the latest pharmaceutical rep, and other incidents that reduced my trust when it comes to men and women wearing white coats.
Does that make me a “smart person who is a dumb patient” or simply a wary healthcare consumer?
Understanding the Psychology of Magical Thinking
I can also see the instances of refusing a certain path when cost was prohibitive and consequently, the deciding factor. But I would be less than truthful if I said that was the only reason. Fear kicked in, yes, but equally – a sense that I could “will” myself better (magical thinking indeed), along with an ample dose of skepticism about the proposed solution.
If you’re wondering, the definition of magical thinking in psychology is as follows, courtesy of Psychology Today:
… believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. For example: “I got up on the left side of the bed today; therefore it will rain”… a more nuanced definition of magical thinking would be believing in things more strongly than either evidence or experience justifies.
I will plead guilty in some areas of my life (welcome to Marriage, Inc.), though I could just as easily term it denial. As for so-called medical magical thinking, isn’t it understandable why those who read, research, and feel they can exercise their strong minds, their will power, and their discipline might turn away from “rational science?”
What about those of us who might do so for some issues and not for others? Is magical thinking a misuse of the term depending on the context?
Judgment in Healthcare Choices
As for vaccinations and the like, an example also cited by Daily Beast, I happen to be on board.
But a blanket acceptance of whatever an MD pronounces? I don’t think so. Consider the constantly changing flow of information from supposedly reliable sources: what to eat, what not to eat, what meds are safe, which are questionable, what causes Disease X or Y… Wait, maybe not… Isn’t it understandable that the masses are less than trusting of the healthcare elite?
Here, the article includes a mention:
… The uneasy alliance between Pharma and medical research has also resulted in major scandals.
Many of us are leery of anything that smacks of the profit motive and the Next Big Thing… except of course, for those that return some control to our hands – including non-invasive therapies – which leads us right back to (theoretical) magical thinking.
Issues of Control
The article continues:
… accepting the recommendations of medical experts… means acknowledging that one is sick… is mortal… It frightens the psychological concept of oneself that all of us rely on to maintain our dignity and overcome uncertainty in life…
If I see the validity in those statements, and I do, I also see them as too black and white. We may well acknowledge that we are sick and nonetheless refuse the entirety of a “medical expert’s” recommendations. And that explains opting for spiritual healing, alternative approaches, and so on – which many believe should be placed into a larger (holistic) concept of health and healing.
And who among us wouldn’t want to feel as if we’re sharing in the control of what is ultimately ours – our health?
Knowledge is Power?
Using her personal experience in medical school to make a final point, Ms. Kim offers this:
… During medical school, I often felt fatigued, and needed more energy to get through the brutal call schedules and studying… Another student said he had started selling herbal supplements on the side… I took the seemingly harmless capsule. Shortly after, I felt my heart pounding out of my chest… The main ingredient was ephedra, which was shortly after taken off the market for causing heart attacks…
Offering additional examples, she effectively argues that without knowledge of what we’re taking (and doing), we may be putting ourselves at risk. However, I hardly think we can make blanket statements about our healthcare choices. Surely, each situation is unique: the nature of the illness or injury, our stage in life, our alternatives, our financial position. All factor into decisions and behaviors that are rarely so simple.
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