Natural remedies may not be better, so why do we still prefer them?

LThey say you wake up one day with an incredible itch. The doctor recommends two medications, one natural and one synthetic to help with the scratching. Or, you start having intense mood swings and go to your doctor, who gives you the option of taking a natural or synthetic medicine.

What do you choose in each situation and does the answer change if you treat your body and not your mind?

We are bombarded with the word natural whenever we buy groceries, supplements, beauty products, household items, wine or cigarettes. People believe that natural products, foods and medicines are safer, healthier and just better. This is called natural preference, or the natural-is-better bias. When people are told that the function of the two products is identical, they still prefer the natural one. This bias shows up in our bias towards natural light and natural talent.

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology added another layer of complexity: people are more likely to reach for what’s natural when treating what they perceive to be a psychological condition, compared to a physical one. People sought a natural remedy for itching and mood swings, but they tended to go for the latter.

Research has offered a new explanation for why people want what’s natural: They’re worried that synthetic drugs are affecting their true selves.

It’s not just about the external features of any product, it’s about worrying about, how does it affect me? said David Gal, professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the paper.

In six experiments, Gal and first author Tianyi Li found a strong preference for natural remedies when treating psychological problems. Gall said they were aware of past research on natural preferences and wondered if the bias would worsen when it comes to mental health conditions. What turns out to be more striking is the reason why the natural preference is increased.

“There was a feeling that synthetic medicine could change me more than natural medicine, and I don’t want to change myself,” Gall said.

This links the natural-is-better bias for the first time to another area of ​​psychological research: the true self. The true self is a belief that has been shown to be widespread. The true self is not just your self, but what you consider to be your core essence, the heart of what makes you who you are. People consistently say that some things they do or some of their traits are truer than others (usually morally good). To be clear: there isn’t really a discrete part of your self that you can point to as being more true, so the true self can be thought of more as a folk intuition that reflects how people think about identity.

But man’s conception of his true self is not trivial, even if it is based on a hunch. Rebecca Schlegel, a social personality psychologist at Texas A&M, found that people who feel connected to or alienated from what they consider to be their true selves are closely related to well-being.

This raises some deeper questions: Do people consider aspects of their mental suffering as part of their true selves, even when they are distressing? Take Matt, a newspaper case, who is feeling depressed. After taking the synthetic drugs, his feelings and emotions underwent a radical transformation, leading to a state of joy and carelessness. Does this new happiness represent Mats’ true self? Or are the drugs masking who he really is? These more philosophical impacts of mental health drugs are rarely explored, Schlegel said.

If people believe that synthetic drugs are changing their true selves, this may lead them to avoid drugs and feel conflicted about the effects of the drugs, even when those effects are positive. (An appreciation of the true self may also offer a new perspective on how people view psychedelic therapy, where people report gaining greater insight into their identity.)

Well actually: read more

Although the true self is not an objective measure, Schlegel said, what we think of as our authentic self can drive our decision-making if we are committed to ideas about the true self or naturalness, especially when treating the mind.

It can be confusing for healthcare professionals when some patients are reluctant to take prescribed antidepressants but are more willing to self-medicate with over-the-counter supplements made from natural ingredients, Lee said. These patients may feel misunderstood in their need to preserve their essential selves.

Still, this preference is a bias, and natural isn’t always safer or better, Lee said. In the US, supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and natural compounds may have more impurities than those that are synthetically derived. Not taking something synthetic can prevent people from getting the treatment they need, Gall added.

The consequences of natural preferences are more important when it comes to medicine than, say, choosing natural crackers over Cheez-Its, said Brian Mayer, a psychologist at Gettysburg College who studies natural preferences. At the start of the pandemic, people with a stronger medicated natural bias reported being less willing to get the Covid-19 vaccine, and after the vaccine became widely available, people with a stronger natural bias were less likely to get the vaccine.

But it’s not as simple as people making the wrong decisions in favor of natural options. People don’t just use the word natural to mean safer, because it takes on more meaning.

Nature has become a substitute for God and natural has become synonymous with the sacred, wrote Alan Levinovitz, professor of religion at James Madison University, in his book Natural: The Seductive Myth of Nature’s Goodness.

Levinovitz published the book three years ago and has since continued to think about why people use naturalness as a justification for their choices and preferences. People, myself included, should really look at what it is they value when they value a natural thing, Levinovitz said. In particular, ask yourself: is there something beyond efficiency and safety that this natural intervention connects me to?

Here’s where it landed: Other people may feel compelled to claim that natural is better when medicine, doctors, or others in their lives don’t see their real complaints as valid. A recent survey found that 52% of people in the US feel that their symptoms are ignored, dismissed or not believed.

Then they have to recalibrate their entire argument to fit that kind of scientific, materialist vocabulary and reasoning, Levinovitz said.

For example, feeling empowered during childbirth is valuable for many people, in addition to being safe. But empowerment during childbirth is not so easy to measure, so people may use the concept of naturalness, for example, by favoring natural birth when advocating for a certain type of birth.

Perhaps we need to make room in the debate about empirical truths about health and healing, for value claims that cannot be easily quantified or measured, Levinovitz said.

Maintaining a bias towards natural things will not cause problems in any case. But, especially given the fact that it can affect high-stakes medical decisions, it’s worth pausing to think and learn what the concept means for you. “I tend to go for natural peanut butter without thinking too much,” Meier said. However, when we slow down and try to understand the choice, we might be able to think a little more deeply about our reasoning.

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