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Obesity: How about Supporting Personal Responsibilty?

Posted by tinako on August 19, 2010

I just watched the 18th lecture in the Yale Psych 123 class I’m auditing, “The Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food.”  This lecture was about conflicting ways of thinking about the obesity issue, and I found his approach to a messy topic to be very organized and well-considered, so I thought I’d sum it up here.

He begins by posing the rhetorical question, Should government play a role, and if so, what should be done?

He asked the class what was a threshold for government action – what would or did convince us that government should get involved in what was often viewed as a personal issue?   I thought about it and decided there were two reasons I thought the government should be involved: First, it is already involved through farm subsidies, such that people are faced with a regressively unfair food environment – government needs to undo this or at a minimum patch together supports for healthier eating to balance the situation.  Secondly, we’ve been playing the personal responsibility card for decades and the problem is getting worse.

One student answered his question as I did, that government is involved, and Professor Brownell pointed out that it is involved in more than subsidies, and many of these programs encourage unhealthy diets:

  • USDA nutrition guidelines
  • FDA and food labeling
  • WIC, Food stamps, etc
  • National School Lunch Program

Brownell next talked about the two main competing frames (points of view, ways of talking about obesity) which define the issues, and had this great chart:

Issue Corporate/Government Public Health / Non-Gov’t Org.
Cause? Personal misbehavior Environment
Who is afflicted? Those at fault Those in need
Impact? Costs others $ Suffering
What should change? Individual Social drivers
Default priority? Treatment Systemic change
Main approach? Education Prevention

He then discusses the American view of Personal Responsibility, which is not a worldwide view.  He says personal responsibility can be debated as matters of morality and life philosophy (is what we’re asking of people moral and just?), science (e.g. food deserts, or biology working against us – asking if what we expect of people is defended by research), and pragmatism (how is that working so far, or what would be the impact of what we ask of people?).  He goes into details for each:

American morality/philosophy is a convergence of the Protestant/Puritan work ethic, a “just world” bias, and American values.  He teases those apart:

The Protestant/Puritan work ethic says:

  • hard work and determination = success
  • self-determination is the key to happiness
  • hard work and success are moral imperatives
  • pull yourself up by your bootstraps

Basically, if you’re not succeeding, there’s something wrong with you.  Can you see how this ethic would affect our views of the obese?  Is it just?

The “just world” bias is when people believe:

  • Good and bad things happen for just reasons, so…
  • …people get what they deserve.
  • …people deserve what they get.
  • …bad conditions (diabetes or poverty) are deserved.
  • …only bad people deserve bad conditions.

If you believe in the first statement, the rest of the conclusions follow.  When it’s written out like this, they look indefensible, but this bias is a common psychological phenomenon.  If you don’t see how wrong it is, click on the above link to read about some experiments that should convince you, or consider little kids with cancer.  Related to “just world” is the “fundamental attribution” error: when bad things happen to us we blame conditions (I was tired, bad luck, bad situation) but when bad things happen to other people we blame them.

The above ethics and errors translate into American values:

  1. Freedom is coupled with personal responsibility.
  2. Individuals determine what happens to them.
  3. People must prevail over poor conditions.
  4. Everyone can succeed.
  5. Lack of success = personal failure.
  6. Only defective people fail.

Can you recognize these statements as typical American views?  Are they fair?

Next he talked about the second way of discussing personal responsibility, using science.  Some examples for the obesity discussion would be:

  1. influence of biology (animal and genetics studies)
  2. world change in diet (do the trends suggest personal responsibility or environment?)
  3. migration studies (what happens when people move from one environment to another?)

Then he discussed the third way of approaching the personal responsibility argument, pragmatism, saying personal responsibility has been the default since the 1960’s.  Has it been effective?  Does it lead anywhere constructive?

Professor Brownell then suggests a way to reconcile those two frames, environment vs. personal responsibility.  Most people would agree that poor diet is a personal issue, but for some time it has also been recognized as a medical issue.  People are starting to see it also as a public health issue, and some people include social, economic, and political factors.  The key is that those who accept all the factors still understand that personal responsibility is important, too.

This next point he said was the most important point of the whole class.  He showed a diagram which presented the old way of approaching obesity: educate and implore people to eat better, in the hopes they will have a better diet.  This has not worked.  Our diets are worse.  He suggests a better way, backing upstream and using economics, legislation, an improved environment and regulation to affect optimal defaults, and those optimal defaults would then encourage individuals to choose a better diet.

He discusses a new understanding of “food safety” which includes not just the sanitation, contamination and toxins, for instance, that we usually think of causing immediate diseases, but also factors that cause long-term disease.  Is a food “safe” if it kills us in 20 years instead of 20 minutes?

His proposed new view of the obesity issue is:

  1. Personal responsibility is critically important.
  2. What undermines it?
  3. How can we enhance it?

The “blame the environment” camp is often framed as wanting to curtail Americans’ freedoms, the freedoms to eat what we want, in the quantity we want, as often as we want: people like Professor Brownell want to infringe on your right to eat deadly trans-fats.  But the issue can also be framed with other freedoms in mind, freedoms that support personal responsibility:

  • the freedom to be informed (e.g. restaurant labels)
  • the freedom to have safe food (e.g. trans fats)
  • the freedom to be free of commercial exploitation in schools

Supporting personal responsibility.  An idea to think about.

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One Response to “Obesity: How about Supporting Personal Responsibilty?”

  1. […] think people have worldviews, influenced by their culture (here’s my discussion of American values), prejudices, stereotypes, and habits.  They defend these close to their hearts even in the face […]

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