Picture yourself going through a rough patch lately, feeling a bit blue and looking for a way to lift your spirits. Your doctor recommended two options for you to consider: an antidepressant that was synthesized with man-made ingredients in a lab and an over-the-counter natural remedy. Which option would you go for? Now, let's say you were dealing with physical discomfort, such as a pesky stomachache. Would your choice in this case be any different?

If you find yourself gravitating towards natural remedies in both of these situations—for psychological and physical issues—you're not alone. Many people share this preference for natural remedies over synthetic alternatives. This preference isn't limited to one specific culture or time. It's widespread, and many studies have found that this preference extends to various consumption settings, from food to personal care products, and more.

A Preference for Natural Remedies

The reason people prefer natural remedies is complicated. On one hand, people often believe natural products are safer than synthetic ones, they just like natural things more, and there's widespread skepticism about synthetic chemicals.

In our research, though, my colleague and I uncovered another intriguing piece of the puzzle: the desire to remain authentic and true to oneself. People think natural remedies are less likely to change their core identity, and they view them as a way to preserve their true selves. This is especially true when it comes to psychological issues rather than physical ones, where people are more sensitive to changes in their true selves, especially when dealing with psychological issues rather than physical ones.

Our goal was to understand when and why people prefer natural remedies over synthetic ones, regardless of whether they were prescribed by healthcare professionals. To study this, we showed thousands of online survey respondents a variety of scenarios involving diverse psychological or physical conditions.

In these scenarios, participants imagined experiencing these symptoms and reported their preferences for using medications made of synthetic or natural ingredients to treat their symptoms. For example, in one of our studies, participants were asked to imagine experiencing skin itching (a physical condition) or mood swings (a psychological condition), and their physicians recommended both natural and synthetic medications for treatment. Participants were then asked to rate how likely they were to use each medication, allowing us to measure their preference for each option.

Across many scenarios, we found that people consistently preferred natural remedies over synthetic ones, but this preference was especially strong when it came to treating emotional issues, such as mood swings and feelings of anxiety and sadness, rather than physical ones, including skin itching and nerve pain. Moreover, by asking people how concerned they were about keeping their "true selves" intact, we also discovered that people were more concerned about this when treating emotional (vs. physical) issues, which was at least partly why people preferred natural remedies so much in those cases. But what exactly is the "true self"?

To Thine Own Self Be True

The true self encapsulates the essence of a person, representing who they are at the core. Unlike how people usually see themselves, the true self reflects the important qualities that people believe define them, qualities that are inherently good and virtuous. Feeling connected to this true self is crucial when it comes to mental well-being. So, it's natural for people to want to keep their true selves intact.

Because people typically think of psychological traits as more essential to their core identities than physical traits, they are especially concerned about altering these psychological aspects. As a result, even though there is a general preference for natural remedies, the decision to choose them over synthetic medicines becomes more significant when addressing psychological issues. The preservation of one's true self is perceived to be more at stake in these situations.

Putting True-Self Concerns in Context

Undoubtedly, there are additional factors that contribute to the preference for natural remedies when it comes to addressing emotional issues. Concerns about side effects or the perception of psychological problems as less severe than physical ailments can also play a role. However, even when we account for these alternative explanations, people still lean towards natural remedies over synthetic ones to a greater extent when addressing psychological conditions.

By scientifically exploring these biases and their underlying reasons, we can help people make more informed decisions about their health. In addition, healthcare providers can benefit from a deeper understanding of these preferences, enabling them to communicate the most optimal treatments more effectively to their patients. Our results are particularly relevant when it comes to understanding why some patients might be hesitant to take synthetic antidepressants. After all, many people view antidepressants as inherently unnatural, potentially jeopardizing their true selves.

For Further Reading

Li, T., & Gal, D. (2023). Consumers prefer natural medicines more when treating psychological than physical conditions. Journal of Consumer Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcpy.1371

Amberg, N., & Fogarassy, C. (2019). Green consumer behavior in the cosmetics market. Resources, 8(3), 137. https://doi.org/10.3390/resources8030137

Berry, C., Burton, S., & Howlett, E. (2017). It's only natural: The mediating impact of consumers' attribute inferences on the relationships between product claims, perceived product healthfulness, and purchase intentions. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 45(5), 698–719. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-016-0511-8

Rozin, P., Fischler, C., & Shields-Argelès, C. (2012). European and American perspectives on the meaning of natural. Appetite59(2), 448-455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.06.001

Tianyi Li is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at The University of Hong Kong. She studies health decision-making.