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Humans are social creatures. Our desire to fit in has obvious evolutionary and sociological advantages. That can be for better or worse. Jumping off a cliff, not so good. Respecting yourself because of Alicia Silverstone’s portrayed self-respect, better. Our girth may be similarly open to peer influence:

A person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57 percent if that person has a friend who is obese, according to the report, co-authored by James Fowler from Harvard University and Nicholas Christakis from the University of California, San Diego.

The researchers closely studied a network of 12,067 friends and relatives between 1971 and 2003, monitoring their weight over the 32-year period.

Weight gain in one person apparently influenced weight gain in others, they concluded.

The cause-or-effect question is relevant here. Tubsters are likely to have similar interests and be able to attain similar levels of social status.

A hefty girl feels her thunder thighs less conspicuous when the hens she’s with are as corpulent as she. Especially among women, where the feigned guilt and reluctance with which junk food is eaten is ubiquitous, big girls are constantly feeling belittled (heh) in the prescence of fitter babes. The 100-pounder laments, “Oh, I shouldn’t have had that Snickers. I can barely look at myself in the mirror anymore,” while the 200-pounder remains in embarrassed silence, waiting for the moment to pass. If she can hardly live with herself at 100 pounds, what must she think of me?

The social pressures acting against obesity play a potentially constructive role here, but it’s easier for the obese girl to find a clique with fatter members than to drop half of herself and stay in with the normal girl.

Still, the conclusion that weight-gain (or loss) is encouraged by others doesn’t need a study to be understood. Weight Watchers, one of the longest running and most successful weight-loss services in existence, has used this knowledge advantageously for four decades. People who struggle to maintain a regular workout routine often find planning to go to the gym with friends or taking part in group runs to be helpful. Even if you’re a self-starter, riding with someone of a equal caliber pushes both of you harder than either of you’d push yourself if you were biking alone.

Most CFOs in the US see rising costs as a top financial concern going forward. That a return to single-digit year-over-year increases are being celebrated is indicative of the problem. Employers should leverage this commonsensical knowledge to cut healthcare costs. Why not require employees to take part in morning exercises organized by the company, as occurs in some Asian countries (East Asian populations have among the longest average life expectancies in the world). Or create highly publicized prizes for employees who’ve shed the most weight? I see this as less controversial than firing employees who smoke or drink. It has little downside.

The trend toward higher obesity rates is a difficult one to buck in developed countries. With more and more activities available to consume our time, food preparation becomes increasingly less enticing. Let someone else (at a grease-laden restauraunt) make it for me. Or toss me that pop-tart package while I play this, I don’t have time to cook. I can go play a pickup game of football outside, or I can turn on Madden. Technological advances means work for most people involves little physical activity, a novel phenomenon in human history. Without incentives from their employers/healthcare providers (who’re often one in the same) or major scientific advances in weightloss methods, I don’t see Americans slimming down.

Parenthetically, this study provides more evidence that humans tend to compare themselves relative to others rather than in absolute terms. The study found people were most influenced by those closest to them and of the same gender. That is, the people who are most likely to be seen as friendly competitors.

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Compliments, Mr. A.E. on a great posting. The study received quite a bit of press–I saw a write up in the Wall Street Journal. The study, however, was fairly predictable. Fat people hang out with fat people, skinny people hang out with skinny people, ugly people hang out with ugly people, etc. etc. When was the last time you saw a beautiful woman with a nerd? Or an ugly dude with a babe?
    I am proud to be one of the fatties! I have addressed the opportunity costs of losing weight and loving my food, and I have given into the latter. My wife is evidence of one of Weight Watchers success stories. Needless to say, I now spend more time with my old and retired CoonHound, Tubby, than I do with my wife….I don't need a study to understand "birds of a feather, flock together." No doubt it probably received a government grant.

  2. Billybob,

    Well, it's a made-to-order story. It's something obvious but easy to talk about and still intriguing.

    Women are less concerned with appearances than men, for evolutionary (and social) reasons. I'm not one to accurately judge male attractiveness, but seeing an uber-handsome guy with an ugly/fat girl is more a rarity than seeing an attractive girl with a not-so-attractive guy, which is a somewhat common occurence.

    As for spending time with the dog, it's hard to fault you for that. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: "The more people I meet, the more I love my dog."

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