15 ways to live longer

May 8, 2006

Or, a refresher on the common correlation versus causation logical fallacy.
According to Forbes, these 15 things will make you live longer:

  1. Don't oversleep
  2. Be optimistic
  3. Have more sex
  4. Get a pet
  5. Get a VAP (a cholesterol test)
  6. Be rich
  7. Stop smoking
  8. Chill out
  9. Eat your antioxidants
  10. Marry well
  11. Exercise
  12. Laugh a little
  13. Lose weight
  14. Manage stress
  15. Meditate

Hey, they forgot some!

  1. Drink more [Miami Herald]
  2. Win an oscar [Forbes]
  3. Be a woman [Bloomberg]
  4. Eat less [The Hindu News]
  5. Eat sushi [Taipei Times]
  6. Get married [Jackson Sun]
  7. Go to church [Warwick Today]
  8. Play the harmonica [CBS]
  9. Live in the future [The Telegraph]
  10. Have a young mother [Health 24]

All I'm suggesting is that sometimes these studies are a bit wacky. For example, people are very bad at confusing correlation with causality. Just because there is a strong correlation between the amount of sleep you get a night and the length of your life does not mean that one causes the other. For example, just because the value of your house and the size of your cat's belly are both increasing doesn't mean that you can increase the valuation of your house by feeding your cat more chow.

Here are three relationships that can be taken (or mistaken) for causation:

  1. Causation: Changes in X cause changes in Y. For example, football weekends cause heavier traffic, more food sales, etc.
  2. Common response: Both X and Y respond to changes in some unobserved variable. All three of our examples are examples of common response.
    • Ice cream sales and shark attacks both increase during summer.
    • Skirt lengths and stock prices are both controlled by the general attitude of the country, liberal or conservative.
    • The number of cavities and children's vocabulary are both related to a child's age.
  3. Confounding: The effect of X on Y is hopelessly mixed up with the effects of other explanatory variables on y. For example, if we are studying the effects of Tylenol on reducing pain, and we give a group of pain-sufferers Tylenol and record how much their pain is reduced, we are confounding the effect of giving them Tylenol with giving them any pill. Many people report a reduction in pain by simply being given a sugar pill with no medication in it at all, this is called the placebo effect. To establish causation, a designed experiment must be run.

(from Correlation and Causation)

Not all of the ways to live longer are necessarily fallacies, I'm just picking on them because lists like these tend to appeal to our view of the world… those of us who drink a lot like to have scientific studies back us up, and those of us who don't go to church might become a little irate when scientific studies back up regular church attendance. In the meantime, let's all buy harmonicas and have more sex (not necessarily at the same time).

Link: 15 Ways to Live Longer [Forbes via Lifehacker]


3 Responses to “15 ways to live longer”

  1. timethief Says:

    I smiled. I chuckled. I sniggered. I laughed out loud when I read this entry. You claim you’re just the glue. Well, I’m marking your blog as “sticky”.

  2. Pronoia Says:

    Thanks Timethief. I love making a fool of logic. :)

  3. […] Stress is a big deal. If you look at the list of 15 ways to live longer, you’ll quickly notice that almost all of them are related to mental or physical stress. Be optimistic, have a pet, be rich, chill out, laugh a little, manage stress, and meditate are all about managing mental stress. Don’t oversleep, have more sex, get a VAP (cholesterol test), stop smoking, eat your antioxidants, and exercise are all about managing your physical stress. What I’m saying, I guess, is be stressed about stress! […]

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