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Optimism, Not Shame, Motivates Weight Loss

September 14, 2012

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What kind of motivation spurs someone to lose weight? It’s a $147 billion question – and that’s only taking into account the medical costs in the U.S. alone.

Health authorities have long struggled to find effective ways to curb the obesity epidemic, and strategies run the gamut from regulating soda size to banning chocolate milk in elementary schools.

A new study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity sheds fascinating new light on why some of these campaigns work better than others. As it turns out, eliciting positive emotions is key.

Harsh anti-obesity campaigns such as that in Georgia – whose ads, billboards, and commercials have featured the tagline “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia” and blast messages such as “Warning: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” – have taken a stern stance to underscore the severity of the issue.

Yet researchers have found that these messages only elicit shame, an unhelpful emotion that does little to motivate positive behavior change. In fact, stigmatization only reinforces the problem: emotions such as shame, humiliation, and stress often fuel overeating.

Public campaigns can only be successful if they “fit with our sense of ourselves,” says UCLA psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, who studies the neuroscience of persuasion.  Negative thoughts won’t recruit the neural systems that convert a message into action.

So what kinds of messages are the most effective? Those that emphasize personal empowerment and don’t mention obesity at all. 85% of the participants in the study said they were motivated to make changes by the slogan, “Eat well. Move more. Live longer.”  People also responded well to messages that suggested specific healthy living tips such as, “Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day.”

Perhaps this isn’t surprising news. Researchers have found that people who commit to a regular exercise routine don’t do it to lose weight, avoid heart disease, or prevent osteoporosis – they do it simply because they enjoy it.

In short: negativity is defeating, optimism is empowering … and the latter is key to making healthy lifestyle changes in the long run.