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What's more important - movie or health?

What sort of question is this? Obviously health is more important than watching any movie!

Ah... but is it?


Some of you might be familiar with Dan Ariely, the behavioural scientist (this site carries several features of his excellent - from why and how we cheat, to how to encourage savingsto whether monetary rewards work to motivate staff). 


Ariely has experienced quite a fair bit of misfortune with health. As a teenager, he suffered from burns to about half of his body (which explains why he has only half a beard, the right side of his face is scar tissue). While being treated for his burns, he contracted Hepatitis C at the hospital from an infected needle. 


Left untreated, patients with Hepatitis C would eventually suffer from liver cirrhosis (basically the complete wearing out of the liver), with a real possibility of death. At that time, the treatment for Hepatitis C was the drug Interferon, which had massive side-effects — headaches, nausea, vomiting, shivering, lasting for almost a day. And it was not a one-off; Interferon had to be injected 3 times a week, over many months.

But surely people can bear the horrible side-effects of the drug knowing that it would save their lives? After all, what’s more important than… living? 


As it turns out, NO. Ariely was the only patient in his batch who managed to finish the entire course of Interferon.

Even at the risk of dying, people couldn’t bear the short-term pain of the drug’s side effects.

So did Ariely possess extraordinary willpower to be able to finish the course despite the painful side-effects? Again, no! It was not willpower, or logic and reason. 


Instead, Ariely realised that the crux was not to rely on his rationality but to make the choice easier to perform.  


Ariely was a big fan of movies, though he typically had no time to watch them. After being diagnosed with Hepatitis C, Ariely would go and rent a movie (remember this was about 2 decades ago) on the days he had to inject himself.


An hour before injection, he would start playing the movie, and he would inject himself while the more was still going on. Hence, injection days became movie days. 

Obviously, the real reward of him regularly taking medication was that he would stay alive and healthy. It’s just that the reward of good health seems so far away, while the pain from taking his medication was so immediate. So Ariely introduced a more immediate reward — being able to enjoy a movie.


In other words, he reward-substituted - substituting an immediate reward that would distract him from the short-term pain, as opposed to relying on the appeal of the long-term reward - good health Even though we can all rationally agree that the long-term reward (health) is a lot more important than the short-term reward (movie), it is ultimately the short-term reward that gets Ariely to make the right decision.

This is the crux of behavioural science - as humans, we are irrational. But we are irrational in predictable ways (e.g. we vastly overvalue the short-term over the long -term), which allows us to correct our own behaviour. It is this understanding of our predictable irrationality that:

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