The relationship between narrative classification of obesity and support for public policy interventions

Paul Thibodeau, Oberlin College
Victoria L. Perko
Stephen J. Flusberg


In 2013, the American Medical Association made the controversial decision to classify obesity as a "disease" in the hopes of encouraging research, reducing stigma, and ultimately lowering the prevalence of the condition. Critics argued that the disease label would reduce feelings of personal responsibility among the obese and therefore discourage healthy self-regulation, a possibility that has received some recent support in the psychological literature. However, public health issues such as obesity are complex and depend not only on personal action, but also on wider societal trends such as social policy interventions. In the present study, we systematically investigated the relationship between four narrative classifications of obesity ("sin", "addiction", "disorder" and "environment") and support for a variety of policy interventions designed to address the issue. An initial norming study revealed that the obesity narratives differed reliably in how much they attributed blame for the condition to the individual versus the environment. A correlational study showed that participants who agreed with narratives that blamed the individual were more likely to support policy interventions that penalized people for being overweight while participants who agreed with narratives that blamed the environment were more likely to support policy interventions designed to protect people suffering from obesity. A follow-up experiment revealed that these narratives had causal power as well: participants exposed to just one of the narratives were more likely to support policy interventions consistent with the blame attribution of the narrative for both obesity as well as anorexia. Individual differences in political ideology and personal experience with weight issues also influenced agreement with the narratives and support for particular policy interventions across these studies. These findings suggest that public messaging campaigns that utilize extended narratives may be a useful tool for increasing support for effective policy interventions. (C) 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.