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Bad Seeds and Everyday Gluttony

The common thread between obesity and evil.

What do the abuses at Abu Ghraib and your expanding waistline have in common? Well, if the landmark study on obesity that was published in The New England Journal of Medical 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 by now.

Unfortunately, obesity is now at epidemic proportions in the U.S. as well as in other countries, and evil remains rampant across the globe.

In American culture, evil is to the flowering of bad seeds within defective people, as obesity is to the manifestation of defective genes into addictive consumption. Evil is feared as the loss of personal willpower to restrain brutishness; obesity is disdained as the failure to contain gluttony. Obesity is not evil, but both share a common yet long undetected feature.

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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 recent years, that is exactly what I have been doing in my research and writing on the psychology of evil as illustrated in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2008).

But can social influences expand our body-mass index enough to push us over the line into obesity?

The remarkable study by researchers Nicolas Christakis and James Fowler in the July 2007 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine provides solid evidence for the power of social interaction as a major contributor to obesity. They identified the social networks for more than 12,000 individuals for whom there were 32 years of data on their body-mass index and social index-- 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 their findings:
• If a brother is obese, the chance of the other brother becoming obese is 41%;
• If a sister is obese, the other sister will become obese 67% of the time;
• If a spouse is obese, their mate will become so 44% of the time;
• Among "mutual friends," the social influence is tremendous, with the obesity spreading 171% across their friendship into their guts and butts.

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, and it did not matter if they lived nearby or far away. Norms not geography carried the weight from person to person.

The 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.

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. I am reminded of a little recognized, but vital finding in the pioneering research on blind obedience to authority by social psychologist Stanley Milgram.

He revealed the power of social models for good or evil by having research participants believe they were witnessing others like them either refusing to shock the victim, or happily agreeing to go all the way in fully obeying the unjust authority figure. While 90 percent of the "teacher-subjects" also disobeyed after viewing the pro-social model, more than 90 percent followed suit and delivered the maximum 450-volt shocks after viewing someone modeling the evil of such blind obedience.

We need strategies that do not drag us back to the dispositional focus of the Inquisition's witch-hunts, that propelled the notion of the "Satan Within," when much good and evil is the product of situational and systemic forces acting on the same ordinary, often good people. Moreover, it is time to shift resources now used to identify and punish "bad apples" (in ineffective correctional programs and weight clinics) toward creating more constructive programs designed to identify and clean up "bad barrels."

We must begin disinfecting those corrupting Systems responsible for constructing them in the first place, and then commercially marketing them to us. Understanding some commonly shared social bases of evil and obesity neither excuses nor blames, rather it enables us to develop new measures to prevent and modify such destructive or unhealthy behaviors via public health models that must replace worn-out medical models of individual disease and culpability.

(For more information on the NEJM study, see connectedthebook.com and Connected.)

Philip Zimbardo has been a Stanford University professor since 1968.

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