The COVID-19 pandemic may have placed public health and personal well-being in the spotlight in ways never experienced before. But the fourth edition of Wunderman Thompson Health’s Health Inertia study suggests that plenty of people are still held back by unconscious cognitive biases when it comes to adopting long-term healthy behaviors — and even getting preventive care for chronic illnesses like diabetes.

The main takeaway of this year’s report is that while healthcare marketers may traditionally have reached patients through education and awareness programs, that alone is not enough to prompt individuals to change their health trajectories.

“What we have learned through all of this research and work is you can’t educate people to better health,” said Wunderman Thompson Health CEO Becky Chidester. “That’s one of the flaws we’ve seen in healthcare marketing practices. The industry continues to think that rational messages and scientific claims are going to persuade people.”

Only 2% of respondents reported not having any cognitive biases – or what the authors refer to as “mental shortcuts”- in their decision-making. The authors identified more than 300 biases, though only 50 or so are around chronic illnesses (and thus relevant to healthcare marketers).

Mark Truss, chief research officer at Wunderman Thompson, noted the increasing prevalence of normalcy bias in diabetes care. Patients with a normalcy bias, he explained, might not heed advice that their insulin levels aren’t good, because they otherwise feel fine.

The study also found an increase in another common bias, regret aversion, during the pandemic. That bias posits that humans try to avoid losses, even over equivalent gains.

And then there’s the availability heuristic. “The more someone hears about something, the more they believe it’s true, regardless of where they hear about it,” Truss explained. “This obviously has channel and media implications.”

On average, the Health Inertia study found that most people have about 15 biases that affect how they make decisions. Not surprisingly, people with more biases are less likely to be proactive in their care.

“They are much less likely to have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, much less likely to have annual checkups with doctors and much less likely to think about calling their primary care physician when they’re not feeling well,” Truss said.

The ability to delve deeper into the cognitive biases patients hold – which vary depending on therapeutic area – can assist marketers in understanding their audience better. It can also help remove some of the barriers that exist.

“Knowing this gives us an opportunity to look at these groups and ask, ‘Why do they feel that way and is there an opportunity for us to understand and create messaging services that helps these people get past these biases?’” Truss said. “These biases are holding people back from making health-positive decisions. Understanding them helps marketers, but it also drives better outcomes in general for the healthcare ecosystem.”