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Moralizing about obesity has a counterproductive effect

14 November 2014

It doesn’t help to ‘blame’ overweight people for their problem, to criticize their unhealthy lifestyle or to complain that they are a cost to society. On the contrary, this is likely to make them reach for an extra slice of cake. However, if someone receives the message that being overweight is not a crime and is (also) the result of factors other than lifestyle, they will be motivated to make healthier food choices. This is the conclusion reached by psychologist Dr Laetitia Mulder of the University of Groningen, following research carried out in collaboration with Deborah Rupp (Purdue University) and Arie Dijkstra (University of Groningen). The findings have been published in the journal Psychology and Health.

Laetitia Mulder
Laetitia Mulder

In recent decades, there has been an increasing focus on the social cost of obesity. This is partly due to the fact that obesity is on the increase and partly due to changing attitudes. The discourse on the causes of obesity places most of the blame with individuals: eating too much and not exercising enough. The implicit message is that obesity is ‘immoral’. Mulder: ‘The tone in the discourse and in the media has changed over the years. Today, much more so than in the past, overweight people are spoken about in morally disapproving tones. Obesity has become moralized, as it were.’

Counterproductive

This moralizing attitude has a counterproductive effect. In Mulder and her colleagues’ study, some 200 participants in the Netherlands and the United States were given an article to read. Some of the participants were given a critical, moralizing article about overweight people, while the others were given an article that did not contain the moral message but emphasized external factors without ‘blaming’ the individuals. The heavier participants who read the ‘non-moralistic’ article tended to choose a healthy snack rather than an unhealthy one.

This finding suggests that we should find new ways to encourage people with a weight problem to lead healthier lives. According to Mulder, that is a more honest approach. ‘In the first place, obesity really is an effect of sedentary lifestyles and a society in which we are confronted with too many unhealthy food options. Apart from that, the jury is still out on whether being overweight is unhealthy in itself, or whether we should be more concerned about it as a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle, among other things. You can weigh somewhat above average and still be perfectly healthy.’

Moralizing about obesity has a counterproductive effect

Stigma

The research did not explore precisely why someone who is overweight will start to eat more healthily if they are not subjected to moralizing messages, but Mulder has ideas as to why this is. ‘I think the perceived stigmatization has a negative effect on self-regulation. Moral disapproval and external pressure cause stress, which affects people’s inner motivation. I think most people who are are too heavy would like to lose weight, but find it easier to do so if they feel accepted by others. Then the motivation comes from within themselves, not from the idea that society is telling them they have to lose weight.’

Curriculum Vitae

Laetitia Mulder graduated in Social Psychology from VU University Amsterdam in 1999. She gained her PhD from Leiden University in 2004. In 2009, Mulder joined the University of Groningen as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business. Her research focuses on the regulation of moral and immoral behaviour and explores aspects such as the escalation of immoral behaviour, the effects of rules and sanctions on morality, and the effects of moralization.  

Note for the press

Contact: Laetitia Mulder, tel.: +31 (0)50 363 7234 or 06-1104 4828, e-mail: l.b.mulder@rug.nl

Full article: Making snacking less sinful: (Counter-)moralising obesity in the public discourse differentially affects food choices of individuals with high and low perceived body mass

Last modified:18 November 2014 09.19 a.m.
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