Friday 16 March 2012

Obesity and Impulsivity

Blaming the victim, perhaps. But a new paper suggests personality traits correlate strongly with obesity outcomes. [HT: @bakadesuyo] They find very strong correlations between neuroticism and obesity, and between low conscientiousness and obesity, concluding:
Obesity is a major public health crisis that has multiple antecedents. Certainly many factors, other than psychological, have contributed to the recent societal increase in weight. Yet, even after controlling for major demographic and genetic risk factors, personality traits remain significant predictors of adiposity (Chapman et al., 2009; Terracciano et al., 2009). In fact, personality has an effect on BMI that is of similar or greater magnitude than that of socioeconomic status (Chapman et al., 2009) or the FTO-variant (Terracciano et al., 2009). The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns associated with personality traits likely contribute to unhealthy weight and difficulties with weight management. Identifying the personality traits associated with obesity may help to elucidate the role of personality traits in disease progression.
My first worry is that being obese may generate measures of neuroticism (anger, for starters); fatalism consequent to poor obesity outcomes also could generate low conscientiousness. In other words, it's then hard to exclude reverse causation. But, they also run a few tests on whether personality traits predict weight gain, finding:
In the HLM analyses, the emotional aspects of impulsivity—N5: Impulsiveness and E5: Excitement-Seeking—were consistently associated with greater weight gain over time across the four measures of adiposity. Such individuals give in to temptation and seek out highly stimulating environments; food and alcohol may be one form of stimulation. And, in fact, sensation seeking has been linked with binge drinking (McAdams & Donnellan, 2009) and overeating (Davis et al., 2007). Such behavior may, over time, contribute to weight gain.
I worry that nudge or harder paternalistic measures targeting specific outcomes like obesity, or drinking, or whatever manifestation of high impulsivity/low conscientiousness you want to get angry about, wind up having perverse consequence by effectively subsidizing failure to invest in the general purpose personal technology of impulsivity control and conscientiousness.

Want to fight obesity and other bad stuff in the longer term? Come up with a good way of training kids in conscientiousness and impulse control.


  1. And, in fact, sensation seeking has been linked with binge drinking (McAdams & Donnellan, 2009) [...]. Such behavior may, over time, contribute to weight gain.

    This tripped a reference in my mind -- I've read that alcoholics tend to lose weight (not sure how this affects body composition, but nobody drawing conclusions based on BMI is likely to care) as they substitute alcohol for other calorie sources. Can't find the source off the top of my head, though. If true, it would suggest that either binge drinking and alcoholism or binge drinking and weight gain are less tightly correlated than the nannies would like us to believe.