Obesity: Free Will, Biology, and Community

Philosophers and theologians have debated free will throughout human history. These debates creep into dialog about obesity, bringing bias to obesity-related research and policy.

It’s pretty clear individual choices play a role in obesity. But perhaps equally important are biological factors that vary from person to person. Likewise community (or environmental) factors govern our choices and influence the expression of biological susceptibility to obesity. Several recent publications examine how we frame obesity and health in the context of personal choice.

In Applied Economic Perspectives, Joan Costa Font and colleagues introduce and summarize an entire issue devoted to the economics of lifestyles, obesity, and nutrition. They point out:

It is increasingly clear that health-related choices are very much influenced by the social environment that individuals are exposed to (McDonald and Kennedy 2005); this includes their social identity (Costa-Font and Gil 2004), and more generally the social norms that affect wider constraints on behaviors that go unobserved by naïve economic analysis.

Helen Lundell and colleagues recently published an analysis of public views about health causation, attributions of responsibility, and inequality in the Journal of Health Communication.  They observe that “individual behaviors and personal responsibility dominated the discussion and served as a counterargument to the significance of social determinants.”

In Political Psychology, Colleen Barry and collegues have just published a study of how individualizing the problem of childhood obesity affects public support for prevention programs. Through content analysis, they found that media reports focus most often on individual cases of childhood obesity, emphasizing personal factors of behavior and genetics, rather than external factors related to the social, economic, or nutritional environment. They also found that subjects are consistently less supportive of prevention initiatives when exposed to media reports depicting a specific child with obesity than when they are exposed to reports that describe childhood obesity more broadly.

Because American culture prizes individual freedom, bias about free will often reduces our dialog to a false choice between free will, community factors, and biological factors.

Food and beverage companies that want to deflect all responsibility wrap themselves in the flag of personal freedom. Coke proclaims their noble commitment to physical activity, deflecting honest dialog about nutrition.

Back in 2005 McDonald’s tried a similar tactic, launching a PR campaign that focused on personal choice and physical activity. Without publicly saying so, they’ve backed away from this disingenuous approach. Now their efforts to demonstrate corporate responsibility focus on nutrition. Shezaam!

Coke should pay attention.

Bias that favors personal choice, biological factors, or community factors over all else corrupts research and policies to address obesity, making the problem harder to solve.

Click here to read the Costa-Font publication, here to read Lundell, here to read Barry, and here to read more in Public Health Nutrition.

Free Will, photograph © gualtiero / flickr

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