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Researchers recently examined the effect of social behaviours on the rate of success for weight loss challenges amongst peers.
As the promise of the warm weather approaches, many people attempt to engage in healthier lifestyles with the hope of a “beach-ready” body. Whether they choose to tackle it alone or lose weight with friends, people find this self-improving goal to be daunting. As a result, many turn to the guidance of weight loss programs.
In the United States alone, the weight loss industry generates roughly $20 billion per year from over 100 million clients. Through satisfactory oriented programs and development, participants work with their peers towards their goal of weight loss in client-oriented programs designed to optimize peer interaction.
Uetake and Yang published a study in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science, where they examined the data from the popular USA peer weight loss program “Biggest Loser”. The program focused on calorie counting rather than restrictive food groups, thus giving the participants freedom and control over their diet within a caloric budget.
The progress of participants was tracked in meetings where each participant would engage in the following: weigh-ins, interactions with other participants, and consultations with the weight-loss mentor. Each of these aspects was considered before concluding the impact a peer would have on an individual’s weight loss. The overall peer effect on each participant was then categorized into best, average, and worst performers.
The few main points that were drawn from the data followed the theory of social comparison. In short, the theory states that individuals determine their own self-worth based on how they compare themselves to others that they perceive to be better or worse than themselves.
Comparing self to the success of peers may limit individual weight loss progress
The average weight loss amongst peers showed to have a negative effect on an individual’s prospective weight loss. Following the social comparison theory, the researchers attributed this discouragement to individuals using upward comparisons to their peer group. Defined as comparing oneself to someone else who is perceived to be better, individuals end up self-handicapping themselves through feelings of inadequacy.
By comparing themselves to someone who is average in the group, people attempt to counteract their feelings of underperformance (relative to their peers) by aiming for only average performer results, as opposed to top performer results. In turn, this benchmark actually discouraged participants as they believed only about one half of the group would succeed.
Showcasing weight loss of a top performer had positive and encouraging effects
On the other hand, the findings showed that showcasing the weight loss of a top performer had a positive and encouraging effect on an individual’s weight loss. Whether it comes from a source of inspiration or utilizing upward drives, results from top performing peers provided better motivation and inspiration than that of an average performing peer. In addition, the success of a top performer was more encouraging and less likely to alienate other participants.
Important findings for weight loss programs
These findings have two major implications for the future of how this industry will market and commercialize their weight loss programs. First, the content that is advertised to prospective clients will be impacted. One can expect companies to only showcase the successes of top performers and avoid the use of an average performer success. By inspiring future clients with the potential capacity of what can be achieved, programs can better motivate and attract clients with the right role model.
Next, the structure of weight loss programs can be modified. Taking advantage of the encouraging effects of top performers in groups of participants is believed to raise customer satisfaction and engagement. This can be done by emphasizing the success of a top performer while minimizing the average performer’s outcome.
These findings have the potential to go beyond how the weight loss industry manages and advertises their programs. Though more research is needed on the effect of peer-oriented interactions on inducing healthy behaviours, Uetake and Yang see the applicability in varying group settings such as school classrooms.
Written by Stephanie C. Tsang
- Social Comparison Theory. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/social-comparison-theory
- Uetake, Kosuke and Yang, Nathan, Inspiration from the ‘Biggest Loser’: Social Interactions in a Weight Loss Program (May 3, 2018). Marketing Science, forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2838279 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2838279