Need help with your diet? Beware the big picture

In the United States, the weight loss and diet industry is estimated to be worth $70.3 billion. There’s a reason for that — dieting is hard.

“A health goal like dieting is relatively undefined,” said Richard Vann, assistant professor of marketing at Penn State Behrend. “If you want to lose weight, that’s not a one-time thing, and there’s no clear finish line. There are literally thousands of ways to potentially lose weight or be healthy.”

Previous research has suggested that a third-person perspective can be helpful when pursuing a goal; viewing your goals from the lens of an outsider can ensure that you do not give up. However, new research from Vann suggests that might not be the case when pursuing health-related goals.

Vann is one of the authors of “Big Picture, Bad Outcomes: When Visual Perspectives Harm Health Goal Pursuit,” a Journal of Consumer Psychology article now available online. Together with Jason Stornelli, assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University, and Beatriz Pereira, assistant professor of marketing at Iowa State University, Vann conducted three experiments which outline how third-person perspectives actually can be discouraging when it comes to pursuing health goals.

The idea that third-person perspectives can assist with goal pursuit has even made it to the mainstream. Blogs, magazines, and even major diet programs tout the benefits of gaining perspective (seeing weight loss through the eyes of an outsider) for maintaining diet-related efforts. Whether it takes the form of more positive self-talk (“you are totally capable of doing this”) or taking the perspective of a supportive loved one, general wisdom suggests that outside perspective can keep a health-seeker on track.

“Our evidence suggests that gaining perspective might not go as planned,” Vann said. “When working with consumers on health goals, you really do need to exercise caution.”

For one experiment, outlined in the journal article, nearly 300 participants envisioned a situation where their health care provider strongly encouraged them to start eating healthier by reducing their sugar consumption. As part of the research, participants visualized a choice relevant to their goal: purchasing a granola bar from the supermarket for breakfast the next morning. Some were asked to visualize shopping through their own eyes while others visualized it through an observer’s perspective.

After that, participants selected one of four identically-sized granola bars of different flavors that varied in sugar content and nutritional value. Those who looked at the goal from a third-person perspective were more likely to opt for one of the more-sugary, less-healthy granola bars if they viewed the diet goal as less central to who they are as a person.

“They had literally just reflected on that sugar consumption goal, so it was very top of mind for them,” Vann said. “Even still, third-person participants often went for the more-sugary granola bar, especially if a healthier diet was less connected to how they see themselves as a person.”

Another experiment focused on 330 participants, who were pursuing a somewhat difficult and important weight loss goal. At random, they were tasked with picturing events related to goal pursuit from either a first- or third-person perspective. They then had to report on their thoughts, emotions and intentions to further pursue their goals.

The third-person perspective had a counterproductive effect on goal pursuit unless the subject viewed weight loss as central to their identity. Participants thought less about implementation, became more negatively self-conscious, and were less likely to take further steps toward accomplishing their weight-loss goal.

So does the research conclude that health goal pursuit is most successful when visualized through our own eyes? The researchers said it’s too early to tell, but goal centrality appears to hold at least part of the answer. Health goals appear less susceptible to perspective when individuals believe their goal expresses an important part of who they are.

“Thinking broadly, this research helps provide a more thorough understanding of how perspective, emotion and identity factor into how we struggle with our health goals,” Vann said. “Health goals are hard, and people work very hard to accomplish them. We hope this project encourages health seekers to internalize health goals and avoid disruptive perspectives on their path to improved personal health and well-being.”

To view an early version of “Big Picture, Bad Outcomes: When Visual Perspectives Harm Health Goal Pursuit,” click here.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.