Killer Decisions

April 1, 2009
Take control: Banish bad behavior.

Take control: Banish bad behavior. Matt Cardy

Faced with a dizzying array of daily decisions, many people don't take a step back to look at the long-term implications. Research conducted by Ralph Keeney, a research professor at the Fuqua School of Business, finds that these personal decisions lead to about one million premature deaths in the U.S. annually. 

In a study published in the journal Operations Research late last year, Keeney claims that while heart disease and cancer are widely considered the biggest killers, it is actually more accurate to blame the individual choices we make. Behaviors such as smoking and unhealthy eating increase the likelihood of being afflicted with those conditions. Beyond that, decisions such as having unprotected sex or driving recklessly contribute significantly to the number of annual preventable fatalities.

While in the last two centuries societies have instituted major public-health efforts such as water-safety, seatbelt, and antismoking laws, personal decisions, according to Keeney, remain the largest factor in determining our overall health and safety. His research shows that individuals have a great deal of control over their own mortality and that individuals don't always need to rely on others, including government, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations, to make their lives safer because they can easily take effective action to make their own lives, and those of their families, safer.

Keeney is part of a growing group of researchers interested in behavioral economics. His methods stipulate that in order to constitute a personal decision, a readily available alternative must exist. For example, in his studies, the choice to smoke is made with the option to quit also present; the choice to drive drunk is made over the choice of driving sober. To counter the trends he has identified, Keeney stresses that people should take common-sense, life-saving steps like exercising regularly, avoiding illicit drugs, and obeying posted speed limits.