Affirming Weight Loss

All People Resist Significant Change!

Or at least, so goes my Rule.  Consider it.  A practical problem with persuasion is that it tells the Other Guys that they are stupid, wrong, and self destructive.  Hey, They are doing Something and you are telling Them to do Something Else, so there must be something stupid, wrong, or destructive about that Something.  Especially when the Change is connected with a key element of self identity, concept, or esteem this problem expands like Menthos-fueled Coca-Cola shooting out of a 2 liter bottle.  We’ve looked at Self Affirmation before as a persuasion tactic for addressing this concern.  Before you make your play, you affirm the self of the Other Guy.  So strengthened, the Other Guy’s self concept is now able to go High WATT Objective and think clearly about your persuasion.

As in weight loss!

Logel and Cohen conduct a randomized field experiment on a small sample of college adults.  Female volunteers first completed a writing task, randomly assigned to either write about the most important value they found on a list or the ninth most important value on that list.  After the writing task, the women were weighed and measured for Body Mass Index (BMI).  Approximately 10 weeks later, all women were measured again.  Thus, the only manipulation here is that self affirmation writing task followed by the weight and size measurements.  Here’s that writing task in more detail.

Following validated procedures (Sherman & Cohen, 2006), we gave participants a list of important values (e.g., close relationships, music), none of which were related to health. We then asked participants in the affirmation condition to select the most important value and write about why it was important to them. Participants in the no-affirmation condition wrote about why their ninth-ranked value might be important to someone else.

Can something so minor as writing about yourself make any difference in body size?  Let’s start with the grind.

Figure 1 displays the results for BMI and weight over time.  Both variables yielded the expected Session × Condition interaction in a repeated measures analysis of covariance (ANCOVA)—BMI: F(1, 35) = 6.98, p = .012; weight: F(1, 34) = 6.31, p = .017. BMI and weight increased among participants in the no-affirmation condition (mean BMI = +0.51, mean weight = +2.76 pounds) and decreased among participants in the affirmation condition (mean BMI = −0.56, mean weight = −3.41 pounds).  An ANCOVA on Time 2 BMI controlling for baseline BMI and on Time 2 weight controlling for baseline weight and height revealed the predicted affirmation effect—BMI: F(1, 34) = 7.49, p = .010, d = 0.93; weight: F(1, 33) = 6.66, p = .015, d = 0.90. The effect of affirmation on BMI remained robust even among the most at-risk participants (i.e., those with baseline BMIs ≥ 25), F(1, 17) = 4.97, p = .040, d = 1.08.

This graph displays the results all in one take.

You see that at Session 1 participants in both groups had the same weight and BMI, but at Session 2 there is a divergence with the Self Affirming women showing about a 3 pound weight loss and the Control women about a 3 pound weight gain.  You might have noticed that d effect size of 1.08 for the BMI results.  That’s a Large Plus Windowpane effect size, about 20/80.

Let’s now observe concerns about this simple, but effective weight loss plan.  It is a small sample of 48 college adult women.  About 60% were obese or overweight, 70% were Caucasian.  How this group is representative of People In General is an open question.  And, we note this ran for about 10 weeks.  What happened 10 weeks after that or better still 52 weeks?  Finally, this is only one study.  The authors did not replicate.

Past these important limitations, let’s now consider the persuasion.  Realize that there was no overt, Lose Weight You Big Fatties! message in this experiment.  People did the writing task, then got weighed and measured.  The mere act of public observation of their weight was sufficient for the participants to begin thinking about losing weight.  They did everything themselves here.  There’s no nagging Food Police, no noisy Lifestyle Drum and Bugle Parade, not even Jenny Craig.

I’m making generalizations here that the study authors did not.  I see this as a demonstration of High WATT Objective processing.  The women in the Affirmed condition confronted the weigh-in with open minds.  They knew they were overweight and the simple act of measurement propelled them down the Central Route and that Long Conversation in the Head as they thought about that number on the weight scale and what they could do to change it.  The mere act of measurement is a persuasive, a demand for change, but women who Self Affirmed could handle that persuasion with an open mind.

Now.  How could you make this work in the real world?  It is always tricky taking a lab or controlled field study like this and operationalizing it for the natural environment.  Folks with a tape measure and scales don’t walk up to Other Guys during the day and say, Hey, wanna do a Health and Values Study?  I’m not sure how well the Self Affirmation Play would work in a Box like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or a physician’s clinic.  It couldn’t hurt, but in the Box of all those other obvious health demands plus the obvious difference that the Other Guys deliberately chose to be there, might reduce the impact of Self Affirmation.

These are open questions and just part of the challenge for practical persuasion.  The maven will figure it out.  Realize that Self Affirmation is again shown to produce positive change in people here on a very difficult behavior and without any direct and obvious persuasion message.  Self Affirmation is subtle, Less Is More, approach to changing Other Guys.

The skill in its application is making the smooth delivery of the SA manipulation within the normal flow of the current Box.  You’ve been fighting with your kid about cleaning up his room and nothing works.  So one day you’re sitting with him watching the TV and a value oriented story comes up.  You then ask the kid to think about his values and what’s Most Important.  Then engage the kid to talk a lot about that.  Now, you invent an excuse to go to the kid’s room – maybe to get some toys for play.  Don’t nag about the mess, but make sure the kid observes the mess.  To quote the immortal Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein, “IT . . . COULD . . . WORK!”`

Logel C, Cohen GL. The Role of the Self in Physical Health: Testing the Effect of a Values-Affirmation Intervention on Weight Loss. Psychol Sci. 2011 Dec 7.

doi:  10.1177/0956797611421936