Perceptions of Peer Opinion Influences Attitudes about Obesity
According to a study at Yale, one of the most effective ways to change negative attitudes about obese people is by addressing perceptions of normative beliefs within particular social groups.
Rebecca Puhl, associate research scientist in the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and lead author of the study, said the model used in this study, known as social consensus theory, is based on the experience that people generally adopt the attitudes of valued “in-groups,” such as peers.
The first of three studies included undergraduate students whose attitudes were recorded before and after the study. It had three parts—including telling students in one group that other students had positive attitudes about obese people, and telling students in a second group that other students had negative attitudes about obese people.
“As predicted, participants who received favorable consensus feedback reported more positive and fewer negative traits about obese people,” Puhl said. “This study shows that expressed attitudes can be modified by providing consensus information about the beliefs of others.”
The next two studies showed the attitudes of a peer group are more influential than a group that is not as closely allied, and the type of information provided—that obesity is genetically-related or completely within the person’s control—also influenced the subjects’ attitudes.
Puhl said approaches that combine multiple strategies might be needed to tackle the complexities of obesity stigma. She said the next step is to determine how to implement these methods and to construct and a test for comprehensive stigma reduction intervention.
“Professionals in health care settings can be valuable in these efforts by communicating positive attributes of obese people and educating students about the complex causes of obesity,” Puhl said. “This can help eradicate negative attitudes, so that obese individuals do not bear this burden alone or face additional health consequences created by stigma.”
Health Psychology 24: 517-525 (September 2005)