Why Looking at Overweight People Makes Us Want to Eat More, Not Less

Viewers of The Biggest Loser would probably agree that watching the weight-loss show fills them with inspiration. Seeing the obese contestants struggle should motivate us to eat better, exercise and lose weight too. Turns out, however, that premise is only half right — at least according to a new study that finds that people may actually eat more after seeing overweight people. “Seeing someone overweight leads to a temporary decrease in a person’s own felt commitment to his or her health goal,” wrote study authors Margaret C. Campbell and Gina S. Mohr of the University of Colorado at Boulder (which is incidentally the most active city in the U.S.). But why? It has to do with stereotype “activation,” the study says. When people are exposed to members of groups who have stereotypes attached to them, good or bad — like fat people eat a lot, or Asians are good at math — they become more likely to act in a way that’s consistent with that stereotype. “For example,” the authors write, “college students’ scores on general knowledge questions increased after exposure to a professor but decreased after exposure to a supermodel.” That’s true even if the stereotyped behavior is negative, and even if it goes against the person’s own values. (More on TIME.com: “Can a Mother’s Pregnancy Diet Influence Her Child’s Future Weight?”) That theory falls in line with a phenomenon that recent studies have designated the “contagion effect” of obesity, which suggests that people who have fat friends are more likely to gain weight too. TIME reported on the seminal 2007 study by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and James Fowler, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego: According to their analysis, when a study participant’s friend became obese, that first participant had a 57% greater chance of becoming obese himself. In pairs of people in which each identified the other as a close friend, when one person became obese the other had a 171% greater chance of following suit. “You … Continue reading Why Looking at Overweight People Makes Us Want to Eat More, Not Less