Thursday, July 26, 2007

My friends made me fat

The Washington Post has a video from Harvard researchers who find that social networks spread obesity "like a real epidemic". "Obesity," they conclude, "is not an individual phenomenon, but a collective phenomenon" as well. Those researchers might be interested in extending their study to the Third World, where social networking among the elites and upwardly mobile can sometimes reach the intensity of a mania. It's easy to see how an endless round of dinners, coffees, cocktail parties, etc can bulk a person up very quickly. But the Third World offers an opportunity to study social networking among the poor as well, and here, I think the Harvard researchers may find the correlation doesn't hold. Members of prosperous social networks in Third World countries have the money to stuff themselves, but people at subsistence poverty, however convivial, run up against the hard problem of finding anything to eat.

In some countries, obesity is actually attractive because it is directly correlated to economic success. Rail-thin man with washboard abs in a Third World setting are likely to be day-wage workers or dirt farmers. And when you realize that "party time" means boiled sweet potatoes and swamp cabbage, the attractiveness of thin men diminishes fairly quickly. But ponderous men with shiny white shoes, hung about with jewelry and possessed with a mouthful of gold teeth are courtship signals of prosperity.

Nothing follows.


Blogger Aristides said...

They might also study the social phenomenon among Western elites of the personal trainer.

Perhaps the real problem is most people aren't rich enough to outsource their willpower. The only solution, it seems to me, is to set a price ceiling on personal training services. Or better yet, create and fund a government department of personal training via higher taxes.

Oh wait.

7/26/2007 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I'm skeptical of this, based on the idea of separating cause from effect. Fat people, in my experience, tend to hang around other fat people. Some people already act as if it's contagious.

If, however, it turns out to have something to it, it might make sense in terms of collective information processing. If lots of people are gaining weight, perhaps they suspect an impending shortage. Since other people might know more about what's going on than I do, it would behoove me to copy them. People do seem to be susceptible to groupthink.

This is of course an evolutionary perspective. I have also read that women living together tend to synchronize their periods. I'm not sure what the advantage would be of that.

It might also be that something contagious is actually being passed around other than food memes. There is a parasite that actually effects the brain and behavior of animals by making them take greater risks and increase sexual contacts. Apparently this increases the likelihood of the parasite being spread. I guess rabies also falls in this category. I'm not sure all this is going to improve our approach to dealing with obesity.

7/26/2007 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger dumpster4 said...

According to:

obesity may indeed be infectious, but not necessarily
for the reasons described in your article.

Though the possibility of an obesity virus means
that there may some day be a treatment, such as
a vaccine, for it.

And while we're on the subject of anti-obesity

7/26/2007 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Cat Plays Furry Grim Reaper

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours.

His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

7/26/2007 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger Beverly said...

jj mollo:

I think the phenomenon of women's periods synchronizing when we live together is a survival mechanism. Think: If you're living in the wild and bleeding, you're more vulnerable to predators. Far better to be vulnerable to predators in a group than singly: it presents a confusion of targets, if you will (note how prey species hang together, partly for this reason).

What's curious to me is how it happens: we don't generally know when our roommates are cycling, but our bodies do. Very mysterious.

7/26/2007 10:01:00 PM  
Blogger Beverly said...

Re the fat story--I think they're falling for the "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" logical fallacy.

7/26/2007 10:02:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Perhaps it was of survival value for the men:
They could all set up their Bivouac together with similar advantages for the group.

7/26/2007 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger MaYHeM said...

Brings to mind a period in Europe, during the Middle Ages, where this was indeed true. Fat was consider attractive, probably for much the same reasoning given here with a Middle Eastern twist.

Obesity is not contagious in as much as it could be solved by anything other than controlling one's gluttony. Social events not with standing, no one is forcing that Big Mac down your gullet.

Being overweight is not as big a problem as this country likes to make it. Morbid Obesity is one thing, a little padding is another. We here are infinitely vain and there in lies the heart of the debate on the so called 'disease' of obesity.

As reference, I lost 22lbs over the previous month, weight I gained while my wife was pregnant. Yes you heard me, I dropped almost 25lbs in 4 wks. How? I controlled what I ate, forgoing high calorie, high fat foods for rice cakes and such. Fun? No! Why did I wish to loose the weight? Vanity!

7/27/2007 05:55:00 AM  
Blogger LarryD said...

Beverly, it's been demonstrated that the synchronization is done by pheromones.

There is a tendency to socialize with people who share your interests, that can account for fat people hanging around each other, and then their behaviors will be mutually reinforcing.

7/27/2007 06:02:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

Menstruation-synch happens in a male-poor, female rich environment. It has nothing to do with predators.

7/27/2007 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Yashmak said...

One could make an argument that females of our species evolved that pheromone reaction, synching their cycles, due to predatory pressure eons in the past. . .and that it remains to this day in female rich environments only as a result of that past evolutionary necessity.

However, I wouldn't presume to say that as fact.

7/31/2007 07:46:00 AM  

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