I’m Making You Fat Right Now

Ragen Chastain: 5’4, 284 pounds. Pilates Instructor: Kate Wodash, Mindful Body Center Austin

Gotcha!  You looked at the picture of me and now you’re going to eat cookies until you explode.  If you are my friend in real life you should stop hanging out with me now before you weigh 5000 pounds. Set your computers to not show images  – HURRY!!!!!

I’m not making this up – it’s “research” (research here having the meaning of highly questionable marketing copy).  You can find an abstract here.

Basically these two women conducted a study where they did things like ask random people to take a survey:

The surveys had photos of an overweight person, a person of normal weight, or a lamp. After completing the survey, the researchers asked respondents to help themselves from a bowl of candy as a thank you. “People who completed the survey that included a picture of someone who was overweight took more candies on average than people who saw either of the other two pictures.”

“Seeing someone overweight leads to a temporary decrease in a person’s own felt commitment to his or her health goal,” the authors explain.

Explain?  I do not think this word means what you think it means.  That’s not an explanation – that’s a theory that their research can’t back up.  It also reads as patently offensive to me because their false dichotomy suggests that fat people DON’T have a commitment to health.  (And for that, they can bite me.)

By this logic I should be an alcoholic.  You see I don’t drink.  I just never started:  I don’t care for the taste, it’s an expensive hobby and I have enough of those, and I don’t like headaches or puking.  But I’m the CEO of a company that owns a bar, a restaurant, and a performance venue where we sell a ton of liquor.  I’m around people drinking CONSTANTLY.  Yet somehow I’ve managed to find the resolve to make my own choices.  Which is amazing since it seems that according to the researchers I’m a big fat fatty who can’t stop stuffing myself while bringing everyone around me down with me.

TIME Magazine let me WAY down by running with the headline “Why Seeing Overweight People Makes Us Eat More, Not Less”.  It’s not  “Why.”  TIME Magazine, it’s still “Does?”, nobody has proven anything. I’m normally a fan of TIME but what the hell?  Is it just a mistake, is your headline writer a moron, or do you not care about journalistic integrity?

Not to mention the “not less” part implies that seeing fat people would for some reason cause people to actually lose their appetite.

Correlation means that things often happen at the same time.  Causation means that one thing can be proven to cause another thing.  Say it with me regular readers:  Correlation never ever, never ever, never ever implies causation.  The headlines are saying that a majority of people who looked at a picture of a fat person ate more candy, therefore seeing a fat person makes you eat more.   You just can’t do that.  For example:  in 2003 the month of August had the most ice cream eaten, and the most murders committed in the United States.  So TIME should have run a headline saying “Why Eating Ice Cream Makes You Murder People”.   WAIT… if having fat friends makes you more likely to eat sweets, and ice cream is a sweet, and ice cream makes you murder people, then I’m not just making you fatter – I’m also making you a murderer.  GET OUT WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME!

As long as you’re still here, let’s talk about the study.

  • Who chose the pictures – who judged what was considered “overweight”?  Actual scientific studies have shown that different people have different interpretations of overweight, meaning that some participants might have thought that the “overweight” picture was normal weight and some might have thought that the “normal weight” picture was underweight or overweight.  Did they ask the participants?  If not do we feel that brings the conclusions into question?
  • Were the researchers handing out surveys and candy all the same size?
  • Was there some other connection between the participants who saw the fat picture?
  • Did it matter that the pictures were all female?
  • The respondents were asked to “rank” the pictures (ostensibly a sham task) – rank them how?  Did that affect results?
  • Did it matter if the researcher was male or female (participants may have been more likely to eat more candy from a male researcher for example).
  • Could the researcher’s (possibly subconscious) fat bias have lead them to offer the candy in a different way to those who saw the fat people?
  • Did anybody see if the study was different if they just left the participants alone in the room with the candy?
  • Was a control group offered celery?
  • How many participants are we talking about here?  Was the sample size statistically significant?

I’m also wondering how the lamp fared.  Was it a skinny lamp or a fat one?  Would that make a difference? Maybe everyone should get rid of any big furniture before they inexplicably polish off a gallon of ice cream.  Or, if the people who saw the lamp ate the least candy, maybe those seeking to change their eating habits should carry around a picture of a lamp.  Why didn’t the study’s authors draw conclusions about the lamp?

And the big question – who funded the study? I know that you’ll be shocked to learn that I couldn’t find that information.  I’ve e-mailed the contact to ask, I’ll let you know what I hear back.

I don’t know why people took more candies and neither do these “researchers” (and I use the term loosely).  It could have been complete coincidence, it could be because fat people have such a stigma attached to them that people see fat people, think about how their body will never match up to the ideal, and then eat candy as an emotional crutch, or as an act of rebellion. Nobody knows.

And really, what’s the point of this research?  With all the actual problems in the world, who in their right mind spends money to research whether looking at a picture of a fat person make you likely to eat more candy?

Margaret C. Campbell is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her thesis was called “Perceived Manipulative Intent: A Potential Risk to Advertising”  Some of her published papers include:

  • When Attention-Getting Tactics Elicit Consumer Inferences of Manipulative Intent: The Importance of Balancing Benefits and Investments
  • What Makes Things Cool? How Autonomy Influences Perceptions of Coolness
  • Implicit Theories about Influence Agents: Factors that Affect the Activation and Correction of Persuasion Stereotypes
  • Persuasion Sentry and Goal Seeker: How Consumer Targets Respond to Interpersonal Marketing Persuasion

Gina S. Mohr is a Ph.D student in Marketing.  I couldn’t find out much about her.  She has 4 connections on LinkedIn, I hope they’re not fat.  Maybe someone should publish an article that says “Why Getting a Ph.D. in Marketing Means You’ll Only Have Four Friends”

You know I’m all about healthy eating and movement – maybe the first thing that we should do on our path to health is exercise some common sense. Then again, I’m hungry – any thin people want to make an ice cream run with me? Come on, you know you wanna…

Huge thanks to the always fabulous Virginia Sole-Smith for telling me about this.  You can read her fantastic blog about the subject here!

Published in: on April 22, 2011 at 9:16 am  Comments (12)  

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As a scientist (of the hard science, quantitative, molecular type), I find these social science pseudo-experiments, and especially the gushing “science reporting” over same, pretty lame. These people need to go back to school and learn what “hypothesis testing” means.

  2. Keep up your inspirational thoughts! Love reading your blog and think you are a great writer! Keep up the great work! :)

  3. I have a sick fascination with the TV shows on hoarders. Funny thing is, whenever I watch one, I tidy up…I guess fat people have more of an insidious effect on others than hoarders.

    Could someone do a study on me? Will candy be involved? Or maybe full-fat cheese?

  4. This reminds me of Kim Brittingham’s brilliant project:

    http://www.kimwrites.com/Fat_is_Contagious.html

    Where she mocked up a book jacket that said “Fat is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make YOU Fat”

  5. I think this is, hands down, your best blog yet!

  6. Ragen, I love your site and your courage and your blog. I earnestly recommend your writing.
    I was disappointed to read your personal attack on Mohr. You’ve already established that her science is shoddy, so I found it below your usual standards to take a crack at someone’s social standing. (although I doubt one’s number of connections on LinkedIn to be any true measure of friendship)

    • Hi Brady,

      It was not my intention at all to make a personal attack on Mohr. I don’t think that LinkedIn is a valid measure of how many friends you have and it honestly never occurred to me that anyone would think I did. I was specifically trying to illustrate limited information can cause you to draw false conclusions. I’m sorry if it seemed like an attack from your reading of it.

      Thanks for pointing it out and I’m glad that you like the blog!

      ~Ragen

  7. I promised myself I wasn’t going to comment last night (aka early this morning). As we witnessed with your last post, me commenting at the wee hours of the morning can turn disastrous. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you thank you for not only pointing out the insanity of such a “study,” but also for many good laughs. Now, if you will excuse me I’m going to have a few spoonfuls of the ice cream that I can never seem to finish and then maybe go on a murderous rampage…and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT! LOL!

  8. Paul Campos is a professor at CU. I am making myself feel better about this article by imagining him tearing into these women and beating them about the head with logic(TM).

    I managed to find the first page of the article on JSTOR here, and I have to say, I’m even less impressed that the article starts out with a hypothetical situation about “your” friend who is 25 pounds overweight sending “you” pictures of her recent vacation and how it will make you take more cookies from the plate that the secretary is so kind as to pass around the office. It also goes on to describe a fat person as “negative social group member”.

    Oh, by the way, I totally just ate five little cookies ‘n’ cream drop candies after reading this blog. I will blame you when I die of a heart attack at age 93.

  9. My man is much heavier than I. Both his children are slender. Both I and his ex are quite lean in comparison. Being around someone heavy even most of the time doesn’t make one fatter. It may make one feel less self-conscious about one’s size or more.

    I think seeing a fatter person, one fatter than oneself, might make someone feel like losing their own diet restrictions a moment since one feels stupid feeling fat when seeing someone else much fatter enjoying life. It’s the reverse reaction to seeing someone fatter than oneself and saying “If I was that fat, I would kill myself” or another one of those wonderful comments that people write on news articles with a headless fattie. They release that dieting isn’t all that important a moment. It’s a good thing. A handful of candy doesn’t make a difference in the short or long term. It’s a stupid study.

  10. I’ll bet none of these “researchers” (if they even deserve the title) followed up with their study subjects to see what their regular eating habits were. They don’t know if these people later ate LESS food because they weren’t as hungry after eating more candy. Also, how significant is a few pieces of candy to a person’s diet really?? This dumb study in no way demonstrates a pattern that really affects people. They don’t know if these people respond this way every time they see a fat person. They are seriously stretching credulity to the breaking point with their baseless conclusions.

  11. Trufax: I am reading this right before walking to the grocery store to buy celery. I will let you know if I purchase more celery than I would have otherwise. Then we have a control group, right, and N=1 is just fine?


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