April 25, 2007 -- 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.
The good guys began wasting energy as they moved toward the norm, but the bad guys got a little better. It was, Schultz said, the first empirical evidence of the "boomerang effect."
But the results were quite different in the second group. The good guys who got a happy face continued their efforts at conservation. The bad guys who were given the frowning face improved, but no more so than the underachievers who were given only the factual information.
The Power of a Pat on the Back
What that means, Schultz said, is just giving people the facts, thus telling them that lots of other folks out there are losers, can backfire. But a pat on the back can make all the difference in the world.
This may sound a tad trivial, but Schultz cited several studies of marketing campaigns that focus on problematical behavioral patterns that have actually "increased the undesirable behaviors and misperceptions they set out to decrease."
While in New York recently, Schultz says he saw a billboard warning that one out of every four eighth-graders has been drunk.
"That raises my concern," he said. "It's an alarming statistic, but what's it going to do to the eighth-grader who reads it?"
A kid who has never been drunk, and told only that many of his friends probably have, could end up trying it himself, Schultz said, although he said his specific research didn't prove that.
It seems reasonable to assume that's the case, and a simple happy face isn't likely to stop it. But the message in this research is that simply warning someone of dangerous social activity isn't enough, and could make the situation worse.
Schultz thinks one way to solve the problem is to build on the fact that we all tend to move toward the norm, but nobody really wants to be average.
If someone is performing above average, and is encouraged to stay there, that becomes part of "your sense of self, your sense of identity and who you are. It will become tied up in those things that make you unique. And so as you come to know how you're different from the norm, or from the group, that sense of identity is going to have very long-lasting effects on your behavior."
The bottom line? Nearly all of us want to be different. Not too different, of course, but just better than the rest.