At a Gut Level—Literally—We Prefer To Take Responsibility for Our Fat(e)

In popular stereotype, ours is a society in which people cultivate their sense of victimhood. And the fact is, there are clear incentives for doing so. If someone else is at fault for your woes, there’s a chance you can force him to make restitution. And, just as good, you needn’t reproach yourself for causing your own problems. Now that obesity is public-health enemy No. 1, one would expect to see people pointing their chubby fingers at any villain but themselves as its perpetrator. Indeed, some lawsuits against Big Food have attracted attention (if little success in court thus far). But polling by WirthlinWorldwide suggests the issue of weight is one where people don’t live up to the victim-status stereotype.

In one part of the research, respondents were asked to imagine they had 10 tokens, which they could allocate between two statements; the more tokens allocated to a statement, the stronger the person’s agreement with it. The first: “If people are overweight, it is their own fault. Eating right and getting enough exercise are matters of personal responsibility, and if people choose not to do that, they will pay the consequences.” The second: “Too many people are overweight because of the influence that big food companies have through the products they offer and how they advertise.” When the notional tokens were toted up, the first statement averaged 7.1 and the second averaged 2.9. While food marketers didn’t get off scot-free, it’s clear that people saw weight as more a matter of personal responsibility.

Elsewhere in the poll, respondents were asked to rate the degree of responsibility individuals and/or institutions should carry “for helping Americans to be healthy.” By far the highest score on a scale of 1 to 10 went to “you, personally” (an average of 8.2). Fast-food restaurants had the lowest average score (5.0). Schools (6.9) were seen as having more responsibility than “media-created expectations” (6.0), food and beverage companies (5.9) or the government (5.8). None of this means Americans find the food industry admirable. They just don’t think it ought to bear primary responsibility for their own health.

Much as we like to blame others for our misfortunes, that impulse conflicts with our wish to feel in control of our fate. In a benign universe, victim status can seem like a good deal. But it must look less attractive in the not-so-benign world we’re aware of inhabiting post-9/11. People now have a heightened aversion to feeling defenseless, and this goes hand in hand with accepting personal responsibility for their own well-being. Who wants to feel at the mercy of McDonald’s when real killers are prowling around the world?