As Dr. Pretlow has discovered, when childhood obesity is addressed, information alone is not enough. In that instance, the patient also needs skills to resist cravings and redirect his or her own attention, among other things. And of course, before anyone can accomplish anything, they need motivation, which is not always easy to generate, capture and harness.
Many people also need support from others. When all is said and done, the bottom line is, potency lies in synergy, in the combination of two or more contributing dynamics.
So, on a small scale, healing is multifactorial. But what about the macrocosm? A few years ago, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report which pointed out that education alone is not sufficient to change behavior on a large scale, either.
Shaming works — unless it doesn’t
In the public arena, what sometimes creates progress, to a certain extent, is education plus public shaming. This is where the power of influencers enters the picture. Voices are magnified by popularity or notoriety — anything that enhances the Q-score or high recognition factor. Whether or not they know what they are talking about, any celebrity can change the hearts and minds of the populace, and indeed some specialize in it.
They can persuasively convince people that, to quote the report, “addressing social norms together is a powerful change mechanism.” The authors offer the example of United Kingdom TV personality Esther Rantzen, who stirred up public concern about automotive safety, particularly for children. Consequently, child car seats were mandated by law. This is what being a “thought leader” is all about.
Also in the U.K., drunk drivers were shamed for playing recklessly with other people’s lives. Education is all well and good, but to clean out the barn, a pitchfork needs at least two prongs. The paper mentions other examples of PR strategies that combine factual education with sharp criticism meant to encourage self-reflection and behavioral change:
An Australian campaign to discourage speeding implied that men who speed lacked virility, which proved a highly effective message. Stop-smoking campaigns stigmatized smoking in the presence of children and helped to make smoking less socially acceptable.
Instead of shaming
Journalist Alasdair Wilkins, who lost 100 pounds in a year, told a panel of professionals that we all hear three clamorous voices: from society, from the people we know, and from ourselves. He expands on the point:
In my experience, the third is by far the loudest voice… The messaging about weight that obese people get from society at large, from the medical community, and from themselves is consistently negative.
This leaves the afflicted person having to count on friends and loved ones for positive messaging. Here is what a friend or loved on needs to do:
The best thing is to care about someone, not define them solely by weight, and to not see them predominantly as a medical condition or problem. You’re there to be supportive, if and when they want to work on improving their health.
If someone has set out and said, “I’m going to lose weight,” then the best thing you can do is provide unconditional support. Let the person trying to lose the weight set the terms of engagement.
There is no evidence that stigmatizing overweight and obese individuals motivates them to lose weight. In fact, stigmatization may postpone and even prevent these individuals from getting treatments that could improve their health.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,” McKinsey.com, November 2014
Source: “How Did Alasdair Wilkins Lose 100 lbs in a Year?,” Diatribe.org, 10/5/15
Source: “Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance,” Policy Recommendations
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