Cherry Pie with Crumble Topping

Worst Headline: “I Give Up, Pass the Pie”

“I Give Up, Pass the Pie” is the brilliant headline making the rounds in the world of obesity factoid journalism. Well, maybe it’s not so brilliant. But it’s the message that Pacific Standard writer Tom Jacobs took away from a new analysis of three experiments published in Psychological Science. 

The studies involved no pie — only sandwiches. In a series of three experiments, the researchers tested the effect of asking someone to read a New York Times (NYT) article about the American Medical Association determining that obesity is a disease. In two of the studies, they compared the effect of reading the NYT article to the effect of reading tips for losing weight. Brace for the big surprise. People made to read the weight loss tips were more concerned about losing weight and they chose sandwiches with fewer calories.

In the third experiment, the same NYT article was compared to an article that argued obesity is not a disease and that personal choices are what really matter in dealing with obesity. Another big surprise is coming. The people who were made to read the article about making good dietary choices indeed chose the sandwiches with fewer calories.

The investigators also found that the dieting tips and warnings about making good choices had the effect of increasing concern about weight and increasing a standardized measure of body dissatisfaction.

Now, we don’t pretend to be experts in the design of psychological experiments, but we can’t help but wonder about the choice of control groups. By comparing the effect of reading an article about obesity being considered a disease to the effect of reading two different articles on the subject of wise choices for managing weight, are we really proving that talking about obesity as a disease persuades people to make bad choices? Or (more likely, we think) are we proving that information about making wise choices leads people to make wise choices?

Let’s be clear. Thinking about any chronic disease as a disease does not rule out the importance of engaging people in making wise choices. Being honest about obesity as a chronic disease actually requires a discussion about the importance of making wise choices if you are to be your healthiest self.

The researchers are smart enough to clearly state that their work is not definitive, but rather that it was intended to raise questions and inspire further research. In other words, the authors expressly warned against making the kind of sweeping conclusions presented in the Pacific Standard and other consumer media.

Maybe we’ve proved that the New York Times causes obesity. And by the way, where’s that pie we were promised?

Click here for the Pacific Standard article and here for the publication in Psychological Science.

Cherry Pie with Crumble Topping, photograph © Ginny / flickr

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