Deep rationality of dark consumption - Unhealthy behavior as signaling behavior

Researcher(s): Eveline Vincke
Promotors: Patrick Vyncke
Duration: from 01/10/2010 to 30/09/2016



Description

Many models and theories stress the importance of attitudes and health beliefs in the promoting or preventing of a specific behavior. Several classic theories  assume that a rising awareness of the negative consequences will influence the prevalence of unhealthy behaviors. In line with these models, public service announcements often attempt to educate people on the premise that people engage in ‘irrational’ behavior because of a lack of information (either rationally, or emotionally by focusing on risks).

However, research indicates that these predictions are not always confirmed in actual behavioral patterns. People are often very well informed about the detrimental effects. Moreover, there is a sex and demographic specificity prevalent among various unhealthy behaviors. These patterns are found universally, indicating innate human motivations.

Since it appears that the persistence of these behaviors is not always due to incomplete information, we feel that a full and deeper understanding of these ‘irrational’ behavioral patterns is necessary to improve public service announcements and prevention campaigns. Therefore, we decided to focus in this PhD on the question why young people willingly compromise their health by engaging in risky behaviors, despite being informed about the detrimental effects.

To address this question, we work with an integrated theoretical framework, combining the theory of Evolutionary Psychology, Life History Theory, Eco semiotics and Signaling Theory.  More specifically, we study unhealthy, risky behavior from a Costly Signaling perspective.  According to the Costly Signaling theory (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997), individuals signal qualities and abilities about themselves by displaying behaviors that are costly. Research already showed that conspicuous displays of benevolence and consumption can be understood from a Costly Signaling perspective, as well as general risk taking behavior. We believe this perspective also applies to many of the unhealthy behaviors addressed in prevention campaigns (smoking, binge drinking, reckless driving, etc.). We also explore which (social) benefits are acquired by youngsters engaging in unhealthy behavior, and  which qualities and/or abilites are being signaled.

The first part of this PhD consist of a thorough study of the communicative signaling dimension of risky behavior. In the second phase, these insights will be used in research  to make social marketing campaigns more effective.  

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