By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Everyone knows that America has an obesity problem. But when I read about a recent medical study suggesting that getting fat is socially contagious -- that if your friends gain weight, you become much more likely to -- I was skeptical. It seemed an illogical form of bandwagon behavior:
Warren: Hi, George. Long time no see!
George: Yes. I notice you've become the size of a bathysphere.
Warren: You're darn tootin'! My buttocks are larger than your wife.
George: [looks crestfallen]
Warren: Aw, chin up, fella. If you follow my pulled pork, pasta and parfait diet, you, too, can become a thunderous, waddling leviathan!
So, as I said, I was skeptical. However, I soon came to understand that the study is probably right. I came to understand this because, on the very day that the report was issued, I learned something interesting about human nature from my friend Bruce Friedrich. Bruce was planning to spend a morning leafleting, and he suggested that if I accompanied him I'd get more than enough material for a column.
"Leafleting" is not a typical way that friends get together, unless your friend happens to be Bruce, who is always working, and whose work consists of informing most everyone in the world, often via leaflet, that they are bloodthirsty monsters. Bruce is a national spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the in-your-face animal rights organization that believes it is immoral to consign fully sentient beings to nightmarish lives of immobility, fear and pain just because we like to eat them instead of eggplant.
I know you probably have a problem with the previous sentence. Many people do. If you are like me, your problem is that you think it is
(1) personally insulting and obnoxious; and
This, however, is not a column about animal rights. It is a column about human behavior, specifically about whether we will tend to get fat if people around us get fat.
Bruce and I were outside the Takoma Park Metro station, handing out what has proved to be PETA's most effective leaflet, promoting vegetarianism through the testimonials of famously vegetarian celebrities, including Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson, Kim Basinger and Mr. T.
This fact alone illustrates two principles of human behavior: The first is that for completely illogical reasons, humans are impressed by the endorsement of celebrities, even if those celebrities are, say, Pamela Anderson, who, according to her Wikipedia entry, is primarily known "for her large breast implants." The second principle this illustrates is that we are gullible, willing to believe almost anything we are told, such as the way you accepted my ridiculous assertion that Mr. T is on that leaflet, promoting vegetarianism. Mr. T resembles the butterflied carcass of a Brahman bull; his veins bulge with smaller veins. He sweats animal blood. His armpit hairs are made of beef. He is a vegetarian like I am Pamela Anderson. He is not on the leaflet, okay?
So, Bruce and I were handing out the leaflets, and I began to notice something. He was getting far fewer turndowns than I was. Part of it was that I had never done this before and was approaching it like a total idiot. One man I unsuccessfully tried to give a leaflet to was, at the time, actively attempting to control a nosebleed.
But the more interesting reason was that Bruce seemed to have a system. If there was a line of people approaching the Metro, and the first person in line didn't take his leaflet, Bruce walked away and tried a different line. I asked him about this.
"If the first person takes a leaflet," he said, "everyone else will want to see what that guy got. No one wants to miss out. But if they see that the first person rejects it, everyone behind him becomes too good for it."
I experimented a little. It proved true close to 100 percent of the time. No one had any idea what was in that leaflet; there was no empirical way to judge its value except by the actions of an equally ignorant person in front of you. And yet, everyone blindly followed.
All of which brings us back to the illogical contagion of obesity and, indirectly, to PETA. We are becoming a nation of cows: moving slowly forward, following the tail in front of us, eating ourselves fat.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.