"Miracle" is an almost literal health halo.

“Miracle” is an almost literal health halo.

The mental pathway of least resistance, what psychologists often refer to as the “default mode” of human thought, is to go with our “gut feelings.” We evolved emotions, heuristics, and cognitive biases partly so that we could make quick judgments that are good enough and err on the side of survival.

This can be adaptive – if we smell something rotten we have an emotional disgust response and avoid it. We don’t have to make a calculation about the odds of getting sick from the rotten food vs the calories and nutrients we can derive from it, we just feel disgust and avoid it.

This apparatus, however, does not deal well with a complex technological civilization that contains things like marketing and social media. The low-energy cognitive process of doing what feels right is easily manipulated and often leads us astray.

In fact I would argue that the mission of SBM can be summarized as: replacing such low-energy cognitive processes with progressively higher-energy cognitive processes, such as critical evidence-based analysis. This, however, can be a lot of work and may rub up against our feelings, and so there is often a great deal of resistance.

Marketing and health halos

Those who are trying to sell you something want you to think with your emotions, so that they can easily manipulate them. Once they successfully create an association between a feature and a positive or negative emotion, they can then market any product or service by simply saying that they have the positive features, and their competitors have the negative features.

Here are some examples:

Natural – This is the mother of all health halos, which is why we frequently discuss it. Centuries of marketing (there are examples that go back as far as there have been health products) have created a powerful cultural belief that everything natural is wholesome, healthy, safe, and effective. This is nothing more than the appeal to nature fallacy. Of course, most things in nature will kill you, or at least make you sick. The origin of something tells you nothing definitive about its features.

Organic – Some people get upset that the scientific term “organic” (referring to the chemistry of carbon) was appropriated to mean something entirely different, a system of farming that is based in the appeal to nature fallacy, fearmongering about technology, and Mother-Earth spiritualism. The misuse of a term is not the problem, however, it is the deceptive marketing of the organic industry.

So pervasive is the use of the label “organic” to confer a health halo, you can now buy organic window cleaner, tobacco, and clothes.

Juice – Fruit juice (or fruit and vegetable juice) has a definite health halo, almost as if it is a magical elixir beaming with sunshine and good health. Much of this started with a deliberate marketing campaign to sell orange juice, and save a failing orange industry in the 1920s. Orange juice was sold for its vitamin content, but also as a cure for acidosis, a rare blood disorder that was blamed for everything from cancer to fatigue.

Juice, however, is no more nutritious than food in other forms, and fruit juice is high in sugar and so is not a good choice for those trying to manage their weight.

Vitamins – Vitamins, of course, are real and a very necessary and important part of our diet. There are genuine vitamin deficiencies and conditions that need to be treated with supplementation. The marketing-based health halo, however, is the notion that all vitamins are good all the time, that more is better, and that most people should engage in routine supplementation. There is no rationale or evidence to support this position, however (and there may even be risks).

SuperfoodThere is no such thing as a superfood. The concept was entirely invented to market ridiculous sources of food to a public thinking with their emotions. The notion is that some foods are so tightly packed with critical nutrients that even small amounts of them will have fantastic health benefits. Algae has been sold as a superfood, but often exotic fruits are the target (like açai berry).

Often the alleged superfoods have less nutrients than more common (and cheaper) foods, like strawberries or broccoli.

Exotic – Often exotic foods, from other parts of the world, are given a health halo simply because they are exotic. This is partly the scarcity heuristic – we tend to value things based on how difficult we think they are to obtain. The farther you have to travel, or the more isolated or limited the supply, then the more valuable it must be. Common fruits and vegetables are common, so they have to be less healthy than a berry that is only found on one tropical island.

Ancient – This is the appeal to antiquity fallacy, which is the notion that if a belief or claim has been around for a long time it must be true. This is often sold with the notion that the ancients were closer to nature (the “native” heuristic), or had secrets now lost to the modern world. There is also the assumption that bad ideas cannot survive for a long time, but history shows how untrue this is. Bloodletting survived for over two thousand years, and still exists in some forms today.

Herbal – Herbs are drugs. They are dirty, poorly regulated drugs with often unknown properties. Yet, by being herbal they are supposed to be magically safe and effective. This is even taken to the extreme in some cases, with the spiritual belief that God or Gaia created herbs specifically to be Nature’s medicine for humankind.

Scientific – Yes, science still has a substantial health halo. People respect science and want it to deliver them effective health products and treatments. The problem comes with using science as a marketing health halo, rather than an actual rigorous process. This, of course, leads to pseudoscience.

The other side of the halo

The flip side of the health halo is the negative association used for fearmongering, which is useful for scaring people away from a competitor.

Chemical – The false idea is that chemicals are all artificial and therefore risky or bad for your health (chemophobia). Of course, everything is a chemical (even water), and the source of a chemical says nothing about its effects on the human body.

ToxinToxins are closely related to the chemical fearmongering, but a toxin is a chemical that is especially bad. What toxin fearmongering misses, however, is that the dose makes the poison. Everything is safe at a low enough dose, and everything is a toxin at a high enough dose.

Genetically modified – This is a boogeyman invented almost entirely by the organic food industry and advocates of “natural” products. The term is often vague, as there are lots of methods for altering the genes of the foods we eat. There is also no reason to think that any methods are inherently more risky than others. The end product is all that matters.

Big whatever – If a large industry makes a profit off a product, it must be bad. There is definitely some truth to the notion of being skeptical of any industry looking after its own bottom line. Where the emotional thinking comes in is making false distinctions between some industries and others, demonizing some and giving others a free pass. There is no more reason to be skeptical of Big Pharma than there is Big Supplement, Big Organic, Big Herbal, Big Homeopathy, or any other multi-billion dollar industry selling health products. Often, in fact, these industries are intertwined. The folksy mom-and-pop image of some industries is just more marketing.

Conclusion: Fear is the mind killer

There are more buzzwords and marketing ploys than those I covered here, but these are the most common ones. These are all attempts at getting you to think with your gut, to feel good about one product and bad about a competitor’s product.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated, however. Think with your brain, and with that part of your brain that requires a lot of mental effort – careful and objective critical analysis. It’s worth the effort.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.