Since when did being fat become a political issue?
Some University of Kansas professors say their research has shown that over the past decade, people’s political leanings, along with their own weight categories, increasingly contribute to how they view obesity and what the government should or shouldn’t do about it.
Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats view it differently, and that makes for political challenges, said KU professor of political science Don Haider-Markel.
“It gets back to the basic idea that if we can’t agree about the cause of different situations, we’re not going to be able to agree about solutions,” Haider-Markel said.
Haider-Markel, who chairs KU’s political science department, and fellow KU political science professor Mark Joslyn recently published their findings in the journal American Politics Research.
What they found was that Republicans of all weights believe individual choices — primarily eating and lifestyle habits — cause obesity, Haider-Markel said.
Democrats, however, were split, he said. Democrats identifying themselves as overweight were more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity. Healthy-weight Democrats said individual choices cause obesity.
Somewhat more surprisingly, those results showed a portion of each bloc was “cross-pressured” one way or the other by its political ideology, Haider-Markel said.
He said it’s typical for all people to have a self-serving bias — meaning that when a negative circumstance applies to us personally, we’re more likely to say it’s caused by outside factors rather than our own choices.
For Republicans, a person’s circumstances being a result of their own choices is “part and parcel to the conservative ideology,” Haider-Markel said. For obese Republicans, that mindset conflicts with the self-serving bias but not enough to overpower the political ideology that being overweight is their own fault.
“Being Republicans, they should be more likely to say that this is a result of personal choices, but being overweight they should be more likely to say this is out of their control,” Haider-Markel said. “So partisanship in this case overwhelms the motivating self-serving attribution — which is pretty powerful when you think about it.”
For Democrats, the “cross-pressure” shook out a little differently.
On virtually any topic, Haider-Markel said, Democrats are more likely “to take the locus of control away from the individual, and say individual circumstances are in large part outside of the individual’s control, which is consistent with a liberal philosophy that argues, for example, that government can do things to improve people’s lives.”
For obese Democrats, their self-serving bias and their partisanship pushed them in the same direction — to say that genetics caused their weight problems, Haider-Markel said.
But for healthy-weight Democrats, “cross-pressure” from their self-serving bias overpowered their political ideology, he said. They, like Republicans, believed that individual choices cause obesity.
Of course, Haider-Markel said, scientists would say that obesity results from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
Nonetheless — not unlike issues such as sexual orientation or climate change — politics lean heavily on what individuals choose to think is the cause.
Politicization of obesity appears to have amped up in the past decade or so.
Haider-Markel said he and Joslyn started with some data from about 10 years ago that indicated, at that time, political thoughts had less effect on opinions about the causes of obesity.
Their new research shows that now it is very much politicized.
“In some ways I was surprised at how quickly this had come about,” Haider-Markel said, “but also how people respond when they’re cross-pressured.”
Different ideologies about obesity have shown up in recent years’ legislation and debates about it, Haider-Markel said.
Examples include the Obama administration’s efforts to mandate healthier school lunches and require calorie counts on some restaurant menus. There are also local and state-level public health efforts, such as appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise, or so-called “soda-tax” initiatives in major cities including Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia.
Joslyn said, in a KU news release about the research, that although soda taxes have gotten a lot of attention, most government action recently seems to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior. Developing public spaces to encourage fitness and discouraging unhealthy habits by publishing calorie counts are examples.
“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”