Don't tell me who to blame : persuasive effects of implicit arguments in obesity messages on attributions of responsibility and policy support



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Obesity is an epidemic that causes physical, emotional, and financial tolls for both individuals and communities. The United States experienced a dramatic increase in obesity rate from 1990-2010 (Flegal, Carroll, Ogden, & Curtin, 2010), with more than one-third of adults and 17% of children in the United States now considered obese (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2012). Although most people agree obesity is a problem (Oliver & Lee, 2005), it is a disease with multiple causes (Wake & Reeves, 2012) and no straightforward solution (Phil & Heuer, 2009). Informed by theory and research on agency and attributions, the current study examined effects of explicit arguments and linguistic agency assignment on attributions of responsibility for obesity and support for public obesity policies. Participants (N = 211) were randomly assigned to read one of six versions of a health flyer defined by a 3 x 2 (Explicit Argument x Agency Assignment) factorial design and thereafter completed a questionnaire derived from previous research. Respondents across conditions agreed that obesity is a serious health threat, but differed in how they attributed responsibility for the illness. Those who read a message that consistently assigned agency to the disease (e.g., Obesity causes health problems) endorsed genetics as the cause to a greater degree than others who read a different version assigning agency to humans (e.g., Obese people develop health problems). In contrast, the human agency version prompted higher attributions of individual responsibility and greater support for upstream public policies aimed at reducing obesity (e.g., a snack tax on junk food, eliminating soft drinks from public schools, adding warning labels to foods with high sugar content). Results suggest explicit arguments are less effective in shifting perceptions of a stigmatized health threat than the implicit arguments created by linguistic agency assignment. The findings demonstrate specific message features that affect social attributions of illness (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 2006) and perceptions of responsibility for the onset and solution of health problems (Barry, Brescoll, Brownell, & Schlesigner, 2009; Niederdeppe, Shapiro, & Porticella, 2011). Theoretical implications, practical applications, and future research directions are discussed.