The Situationist

Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on September 5, 2007


What do the abuses at Abu Ghraib and your expanding waistline have in common? Well, if the landmark study on obesity that was just published in the New England Journal of Medicine has any validity, then the answer will surprise you.

Societal attempts to combat obesity and fight evil focus on modifying the individuals themselves through a variety of programs, penalties, and punishments. There’s a problem. If indeed, obesity and evil were solely matters of character, disposition, or metabolism, the centuries’ old struggles to resist evil and more recent medical-educational programs to combat obesity should have yielded significant reductions in both. Unfortunately, obesity is now at epidemic proportions in the U.S., while evil remains rampant across the globe.

In our culture, evil is to the flowering of bad seeds within defective people, as obesity is to the manifestation of defective genes into addictive consumption.junk-food-devil.jpg Evil is feared as the loss of personal willpower to restrain brutishness; obesity is disdained as the failure to contain gluttony. Since the cosmic myth of Angel Lucifer turned into the Devil for his sins, evil has been seen as emanating from within. Traditional, medical conceptions similarly trace the origins of obesity to the person’s interior — negative genetic endowment or reactions to a dysfunctional childhood. Obesity is not evil, but both share a common undetected feature. Why has victory been so elusive in these “wars” against the baleful and the bulging?

The answer: we have misidentified the enemy. Social science, like history, has demonstrated that the most powerful causal forces behind everything from prisoner abuse to ‘supersizing’ are located less in conscious individual choices and more in the situational and systemic factors that envelop individuals at given times and places. The prevailing notion that personal, inner dispositions are the primary causal factors involved in bad behavior or obesity needs to be reexamined.

In 1971, I set out to do just that. Normal, healthy young men participating in a simulated prison experiment quickly became abusive, even sadistic, in the guard role, or emotionally disturbed, in the prisoner role. This experiment, and related research, revealed the overwhelming power of situational forces on behavior. Most people are social animals who are influenced by what others say and do, and by the values they model. As my study unveiled, people can be led into evil ways. By the same token, I would expect other human actions arising out of lack of restraint to be similarly driven by social factors that we have tended to ignore or underestimate. But obesity? Can social influences expand our body-mass index enough to push us over the line into obesity?

A remarkable study in The New England Journal of Medicine (July 26, 2007) provides solid evidence for the power of social interaction as a major contributor to obesity. Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler tracked the obese status of more than 12,000 people over 32 years. They identified the social networks for each of these individuals — their families, spouses, friends, and neighbors.

After charting the body-mass index of those geographically near and far, of both genders, smokers and non-smokers, and by ruling out stable factors related to childhood experiences and genetic endowment, the researchers came to this uncommon-sense conclusion. “Network phenomena appear to be relevant to the biologic and behavioral trait of obesity, and obesity appears to spread through social ties . . . . The spread of obesity in social networks appears to be a factor in the obesity epidemic.”
Consider these findings:

Family: Among brothers, one’s obesity increases the chance of the other also becoming obese by 40 %. Among sisters, the effect may be an even greater 67%. Obesity in a sibling of the opposite sex had no causal effect on the other’s chances of becoming obese.
Married couples: Husbands and wives influenced each other’s likelihood of becoming obese, once either was obese, by as much as 44%.
Friends: When one target person identified another person as a friend, then his or her chances of obesity showed a 57% increase — if that friend became obese. There was no effect when the other person did not also consider the target person as a friend. However, when the relationship was between “mutual friends,” then the risk of obesity soared up to an amazing 171%.
Geography: It made no difference on this spread of obesity whether family or friends were near or far, or if an immediate neighbor became obese.
The study also showed that these effects were the product, not of behavioral imitation, but of perceived social norms. Having a close friend or family member who is obese made obesity more socially acceptable — rather than stigmatized.

obese-friends.jpgThe researchers conclude: “The observation that people are embedded in social networks suggests that both bad and good behaviors might spread over a range of social ties. This highlights the necessity of approaching obesity not only as a clinical problem but also as a public health problem.” And that brings us back to the conceptual symmetry between obesity and evil.

Recognizing evil actions as a vector of “social disease,” whose origins may be found in social networks, also makes it a public health problem. My analysis (in The Lucifer Effect) of evils perpetrated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison adopts a similar focus on understanding how those abuses occurred, and what can be done to change situations and systems that foster such transformations of once healthy, good young soldiers into perpetrators of evil.

If we can accept that obesity and evil are largely the consequence of common causes found in social situational forces, not in personal defects, then maybe we can begin to imagine new models and methods for containing them. We need strategies that do not drag us back to the Inquisition’s witch-hunts. We need to shift resources now used to identify and punish “bad apples” toward creating more constructive programs designed to identify and clean up “bad barrels,” and for disinfecting those systems responsible for constructing and selling them.

* * *

This post echoes a theme that has been explored at length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here. For another Situationist post summarizing the study discussed above, go to “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.” For an NPR, Morning Edition transcript and audio report about the study click here. For a list of previous posts looking at other situational causes of obesity, click here. For some of my previous Situationist posts examining evil, take a look at “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes,” (Part I & Part II) and “Situational Sources of Evil” (Parts I, II, and III). To learn more about my book, The Lucifer Effect and work related to it, click here.

6 Responses to “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil”

  1. This is an excellent article. Coming from the point of view of the psychology of decision making, it is interesting to consider the effects of social networks on our ability to make healthy choices. All the personal tricks in the world don’t stand up to the influence of who you are spending time with.

  2. […] The Situationist has an article describing recent research that found a tremendously strong link between social networks and obesity. From the perspective of social networks, obesity, much like drug use and memes in general, spreads like a disease through groups of people. […]

  3. Doug S. said

    There seem to be a lot of biological factors involved in obesity that don’t involve personal decisions on how much to eat. I read in the New York Times about experiments in which people were given extremely controlled diets. Skinny people had to eat far more calories to become fat and stay fat than people who were “naturally” fat did. People who were “naturally” fat had to eat far fewer calories in order to maintain a lower body weight than “naturally” skinny people.

    Different bodies react differently to different caloric inputs, for whatever reason. There is some evidence that certain viruses contribute to obesity, and there is also evidence that microbes in the digestive tract affect how much food a person needs to maintain a given body weight.

  4. I find your article interesting from the ‘internal perspective’ because I myself have struggled with the idea of gluttony and have kept a wary eye on ‘Lucifer’ and I acknowledge the connection in our minds. I was surprised to read about your ideas because I truly thought they were my own personal observations in life and I always wanted to write them down but never have and now I’m wondering if there are other epiphanies, that I thought were quite personal, that are part of ‘modern psychological review’. I find your article personally fascinating.

    I must also review this article from a another perspective. I think it is very irresponsible to make any claim that we in America are, in any way, responsible or deserving of the criminal terrorist actions that have been carried out against us. We are the most giving country in the world. Yes, we are powerful, and yet we don’t use that power to take over countries and engage in empire building. Unfortunately, with success comes responsibility, and it is our God given mission to do our best to bring freedom and beat back oppression in situations where we can. Saddam was a terrible dictator with dangerous tools and I have never had second thoughts about our decision to remove him from his post. The work that our troops are doing in Iraq is very important, and they know it, they are not only there to carry guns and police areas. Most of what they do is show the people that an American GI is trustworthy and reputable and caring. Yes, there have been a few outrageous situations and those things are appalling to me and the rest of the American people but for each bad story told about Americans in Iraq there are thousands of good stories that will never be told to the American people and the world at large because they are less marketable to the press. Our solders bring our culture, our happiness, our respect for humanity, and our love, and so I want to emphasize that our troops are great people doing a good job that involves many things that are not in the manual.

    To sum things up: I appreciate your insight into our personal struggles and I am astounded by the depth of your article and I applaud you for your work in that area. However, I am deeply concerned about the message your article promotes about Americans losing their personal battle with evil and tying that to terrorism. We are the kindest and most giving country that has ever been. The media spin has caused the world opinion on Americans to drop but if we counted up all the money and aid that Americans give to people in other countries the amounts are staggering and we pay those taxes so our government can help the people of the world and the private charities and other organizations take action to help other people. I don’t think we should be branded as anything but people trying to do our best for the world. Most Americans would agree with me. Yes we have a few bad eggs (as every culture does) and yes we are people that are also animals and will behave a certain way if we are put in a Skinner box, but our current society hasn’t lost it’s internal battle with evil. The great majority of Americans are very very good people that I would trust with my life. We do our best and when terrible situations arise they are dealt with by the justice system our founders put in place.

    Ethan Dickenson, Author, Today’s ‘Best of Breed’
    ~~~~~A suite of freeware for Windows~~~~~

  5. […] Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil […]

  6. […] here. For previous Situationist posts discussing the work of Christakis and Fowler, see “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” and “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.” For  […]

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