The Boomerang Effect

So many people are fat these days that we've got a nationwide obesity epidemic. We see that stated so often in magazines and newspapers and on television talk shows that we've got to believe it, right?

But just believing it, according to new research, could be our worst enemy. One likely consequence of learning that lots of other folks are overweight is to put on a few pounds ourselves.

That's because we all tend to move toward the norm, according to social psychologist Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos.

Even advertisements that implore us to do the right thing can backfire, resulting in many people doing precisely the wrong thing, said Schultz, lead author of a research paper on the subject that is published in the May issue of Psychological Science.

It's called the "boomerang effect," and Schultz thinks that he and his colleagues have proved it's real.

A Happy Finding

The research indicates that many well-intentioned campaigns to get us to modify our poor behavior are probably having exactly the wrong effect, but the work also suggests a possible antidote for the boomerang effect: a simple smile. All it took was a happy face to cancel it entirely, at least in the research project conducted by Schultz's team.

"The power of the norm works in both directions," Schultz said in an interview with ABC News. Moving toward the center can make bad performers better, but it can also make good performers worse.

"I think the norms approach is very widely used in what are called 'awareness campaigns,'" he said. "We need to raise awareness, or increase peoples' perceptions of how common this is. If you think about something like eating disorders among college women, and you get the word out that this is a serious problem, then included in that message is the idea that other women are doing this."

The result, he said, is some women will move toward the norm and closer to the dinner table.

A lot of psychologists have theorized that many campaigns backfire because of the lure of social norms, but, according to Schultz, there has been precious little evidence presented in the literature. So he came up with a way to test that.

Testing the Boomerang Effect

Schultz and colleagues at the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University recruited nearly 300 residents of the Southern California community of San Marcos to take part in the experiment.

The participants were told that the purpose of the project was to "promote household energy conservation," according to the study. Meter readings were taken at each of the households at the beginning of the project, and two weeks later, establishing an initial baseline measure of daily energy usage. Additional readings were taken weeks later.

The households were divided into two groups with approximately equal numbers of high-energy and low-energy users. The participants were given periodic reports on how they were doing compared to the other participants. The first group was given only the factual material, including how far they were off the norm. The second group received either a happy face on the report, if they were conservative in their energy usage, or a frowning face if they were being wasteful.

The researchers anticipated that both the good and the bad guys would move toward the center if given only the factual information. And they say that's exactly what happened.

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