About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Lack of education can kill you, extra education lengthens your life

At least, that's the finding of several studies reported by the BBC and the New York Times. According to the BBC, a disturbing 27% of people in Britain are convinced that the likelihood of them becoming affected by a major sickness is a function of “fate,” not of how they manage their life style. Predictably, among smokers the percentage goes up to 50, an obvious example of denial in action (I know first hand, since my father died of smoke-related cancer a few years ago, and often blamed his bad luck because, you know, there are people who smoke into their 90s and are fine). Interestingly, people with high income (and, presumably, better education) are less likely to blame fate (14%), while people of low income are much more likely to do so (43%).

The article in the New York Times reported several findings over the last few years suggesting that the single most important statistical predictor (and, more controversially, causal factor) of longevity across the globe is education. One study at Columbia University used historical records from the United States to track the effect of increases in the number of compulsory years of schooling in different States through time: on average, an additional year in school was equivalent to an additional 18 months of life span. Not bad, even if you have to endure a bit more calculus and English lit.

Education is statistically more important than any other single factor, including – rather surprisingly – race and socio-economic status, and the results have been confirmed in several other countries around the planet. The most intriguing suggestion made so far to explain the effect is that it has to do with people's ability to forgo immediate pleasure for future gain, rather than with simple knowledge of health matters. For example, in the United States pretty much everyone, regardless of race and wealth, is by now aware that smoking has deleterious health effects, and yet the rate of smoking is much higher among low-income people. It is certainly intriguing that at least one federally funded research study showed that among middle-aged people, less education is in fact directly related to difficulty in thinking ahead.

So, Aristotle was right, after all: it is the educated person who is most capable of steering her behavior toward the golden mean (away from excesses) and to overcome humanity's inherent problem of akrasia (weakness of the will). Rather than “seizing the day,” it is much healthier to think ahead and go to the gym.


  1. Nice post.

    Rather than “seizing the day,” it is much healthier to think ahead and go to the gym.

    It's even healthier still if one's method of "seizing the day" is to go to the gym!

  2. My fate is in Ronald McDonald's hands.

    But I would argue that there is a peak level of education where credulity and self delusion make a resurgence. I know several well educated people who are self-described hypochondriacs. They blame everything but fate for their problems.

  3. Very interesting!!!

    My Father has a higher education and has been smoking 32 years. His consolation is a good luck in the process: "Ivan, I had a grandfather who smoke into their 80s and I had met a lot of people with this luck"

    Well, may be him say that because I don't worry about it. However, I said him, "I hope you will have luck with your genotype/environment interation". Anyway, I would prefer him let to smoke.

    I think that the addictions have been lookin for an apology many years in our species, higher education and awareness explain not all the picture.

  4. Years of education does not always equate with being educated, and crediting yourself is not always rational.

    We all know a person who got C's at Yale and slid thru Harvard B School. Who believes God talks to him. And who we can be sure credits others for his business failures and credits himself for being appointed President.

  5. ...but who was it who said something like "education is what is left after we forgot the stuff we learned in school"? ;-)


  6. What if education is not a cause, but a result, of being willing to make short term sacrifices for long-term gain. Such a mentality is certainly necessary to spend years in school that you could be using doing other things, all in order to get a better job way down the line.


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