Social Comparison Theory and Obesity
As we are becoming more aware of the health implications of obesity and what we eat, from the ‘let some pretentious cow tell you what not to eat’ programmes to the traffic lights (which are appearing on the front of all my favourite foods telling me exactly how unhealthy what I am eating is) are we actually at a higher risk of obesity if those around us are obese? It was Festinger (1954) who first coined the term social comparison theory with the idea that we view our behaviour in light of those around us.
“[Social comparison theory is] the idea that there is a drive within individuals to look to outside images in order to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. These images may be a reference to physical reality or in comparison to other people. People look to the images portrayed by others to be obtainable and realistic, and subsequently, make comparisons among themselves, others and the idealized images.” [quote]
Could it be that in those parts of the country where obesity is rife, people are creating a vicious circle by looking at those people around them (who are inevitably ‘larger’) and comparing their physical appearance to that? Walking around Hull, which was named (and shamed) as the chubbiest city in the UK back in 2004, it is evident that the average size is more … cuddly … than other places in the country. This conclusion wasn’t arrived at after laborious study and measurement, it’s from my personal observations but it’s an interesting issue never the less.
As social beings we compare ourselves to those around us; be it the size of our cars (or the size of anything else come to think of that!) how much we earn; what we wear or even our size. Consider this hypothetical situation: a town of people where more people are getting fat. Other people are going to look around and see that being fat is becoming more of a social norm and less stigmatised, consequently one might start to go the same way or at least think that it’s okay.
The results of a mass longitudinal study in the USA has recently been published which seems to support this idea. Christakis and Fowler (2007) research followed a social network of 12,067 people who were assessed between 1971 and 2003 and found:
“The spread of obesity in social networks appears to be a factor in the obesity epidemic. Yet the relevance of social influence also suggests that it may be possible to harness this same force to slow the spread of obesity. Network phenomena might be exploited to spread positive health behaviours in part because people’s perceptions of their own risk of illness may depend on the people around them. Smoking- and alcohol-cessation programs and weight-loss interventions that provide peer support – that is, that modify the person’s social network – are more successful than those that do not. People are connected, and so their health is connected.” [quote]
We have to ensure is that we don’t over simplify things or propose reductionist theses on this topic; although obesity is easy to define the causes are many, wide spread, and interrelated. Some psychologists put the ball firmly in the social playing field comparing ourselves to those around us; socioeconomic conditions; levels of education. Neuropsychologists however would argue that it’s a case of under active or fewer neurotransmitters (Volkow argues that people with obesity tend to have fewer D2 dopamine receptors in the striatum that could promote over-eating.)
It does seem that our lives, health and weight might be connected at a social level. Think about that the next time you’re looking around.