The millions of Americans who make New Year's resolutions to lose weight often have pictures in mind.
They're pictures that have been repeatedly supplied by the health and beauty magazines at supermarket checkout lines. They feature skinny models in bikinis, or toned guys with six-pack abs, and captions about how you could look like this by summer.
Some people go so far as to tape these pictures onto their refrigerators and cupboards. When they're tempted to reach for a cookie, they reason, the sight of that toned model might dissuade them from breaking their resolutions.
"There's one commercial for a cereal brand which actually targets women that want to lose weight," said Anne Klesse, a researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. "And in this commercial, there's a woman who wants to fit in a very nice dress. And to make herself more motivated, she puts a picture of a skinny model wearing this dress on her fridge and on the vending machine."
The research to date on the effect of such models has been mixed. Some studies suggest such images lower the self-esteem of dieters by giving them unrealistic goals. Others say they increase motivation by inspiring dieters about what's possible.
Klesse and her colleagues recently conducted an experiment to see what effect the skinny models had on dieters.
They recruited female volunteers who signed up for a weight-loss program and gave them diaries in which the volunteers could note precisely what they ate and when — a standard technique in weight-loss programs nowadays.
But half of the volunteers got a diary that featured a skinny model on the cover and on every page. The other half got diaries with the neutral image of a logo.
The results were sobering.
"Those people that saw the diary without the model on top — they were actually able to lose weight," Klesse said. "Surprisingly, the people that [had the diary with the model on it] were not able to lose weight, and, even worse, they even slightly gained weight."
Klesse and her colleagues found that the volunteers in the two groups did about the same at the beginning of the study. But as the weight-loss program continued, the people who saw the skinny model every time they opened their diaries fell off the wagon. They started sneaking in snacks.
To guard against the possibility that there was something about the model apart from her skinniness that was driving the phenomenon, the researchers conducted a second experiment comparing the effects of diaries with the very skinny model and diaries featuring the same model but altered to look like she's of average weight.
Again, the researchers found that it was the skinny model that caused dieters to gain weight.
"Being constantly exposed before and after eating, every time I am writing in my diary, I am reminded of a very skinny model, the idea comes up that it is not attainable for me," Klesse said.
In the study, the researchers said repeated exposure to models with unrealistic body sizes "changes the dieter's belief about the very attainability of a thinner self. Our findings reveal that the perception that a goal is unattainable demotivates dieters from investing effort in achieving the goal and causes them to disengage from the goal."
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And I'm Steve Inskeep. This is the time of year when millions of Americans make resolutions. In many cases, they're the same resolutions - the same resolutions as your friends and neighbors, maybe even the same resolution you have made in years past. A resolution to lose some weight. NPR's Science Correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, joins us regularly to talk about social science research. He's here now to talk about a study that explored one dimension of making that resolution work. Shankar, what is it?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, I spoke with Anne Klesse, she works at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. And she said she got the idea to study this one factor that affects weight loss resolutions, by looking at a television commercial recently. Here she is.
ANNE KLESSE: There's one commercial for (unintelligible) brand, which actually targets women that want to lose weight. And in this commercial there's a woman who wants to fit in a very nice dress. And to make herself more motivated, she puts a picture of a skinny model wearing this dress on the fridge and on the vending machine.
INSKEEP: OK. Aspirations - that's what she wants to aim for.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I mean, the idea is that every time she sees the model on the fridge or the vending machine, it serves as motivation. And you see the same idea in health magazines in the checkout line in the supermarket. You know, six things you can do to lose weight by the summer. And all the men's magazines show these guys with washboard abs, and all the women's magazines show these skinny women in bikinis. Now, the research has been mixed, so far, about what the effect is of these models. I mean, so some of the research says, you know, seeing these people actually serves to lower our self esteem, because most of us realize we can't be like those people.
INSKEEP: I'll never look like that - you give up.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. But there's other research that says we can also be inspired by them. We can, sort of, say, well, maybe that's the kind of person I want to be, or that's the kind of body image I'd like to have; and so I'm going to try and work harder to try and figure out if it's possible. And what Klesse said is, let's try and figure out what actually works. Let's measure to see whether these models motivate us or de-motivate us.
INSKEEP: OK. So, how do you measure that?
VEDANTAM: So what she did is she set up set of experiments - she brought in about a hundred female volunteers who wanted to lose weight, and she gave them all diaries to keep track of what it was they were eating over time. This is a classic weight loss technique. (Unintelligible) was the experimental trick: some of the volunteers got a diary, and on the cover of the diary, there was a picture of this really, really skinny model - this skinny woman - and every page of the diary featured a picture of that really skinny woman. The other volunteers got diaries with a neutral image, they just got a picture of a measuring tape. Right? What do you think happened, Steve?
INSKEEP: I'm guessing that the people with the diaries with the skinny woman, either stopped keeping the diary or lied.
VEDANTAM: Well, neither. So they kept the diary, but what Klesse found, is that the people who had the diary with the skinny model, they had a dramatically different outcome than the women who got the neutral image.
KLESSE: Those people that saw the diary without the model on top, they were actually able to lose weight. Surprisingly, the people that were in the model condition, were not able to lose weight, and even worse, they actually, slightly gained weight.
INSKEEP: OK. So, looking at the ideal, actually caused people to do worse in these weight loss regimens.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And what the researchers found, is that both groups of women did about the same at the start of the weight loss program - they stuck to their aims and goals. But after a few days, the women who were constantly seeing this very, very skinny model, they essentially fell off the wagon. And Klesse told me that she can understand what was happening in the minds of these volunteers.
KLESSE: Being constantly exposed, before and after eating - every time I'm writing in my diary, I'm reminded of this very skinny model. And the idea comes up that it is not attainable for me.
INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned women were being studied here. Does this same idea apply to men?
VEDANTAM: Well, I think the short answer is we don't know, Steve. I mean, speaking just for myself, seeing pictures of all those guys with the washboard abs has done nothing for my abs.
I was speaking with a Science Desk colleague of mine, Allison Aubrey, and she proposed an experiment where the guys were getting diaries, which featured, not pictures of guys with washboard abs, but pictures with a really skinny woman.
VEDANTAM: That had an effect on what the guys did. Now, of course, that would not only be a different experiment, it might even be a different kind of experiment.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, we'll see if she manages to get into that. Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. He's also on Twitter. He's @hiddenbrain.
You can also follow this program @morningedition, @nprgreene, and @nprinskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.