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Does the New York Times Now Support Corporate Fat-Shaming?

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

To my knowledge, the New York Times didn’t just get hacked.  It’s not April 1st yet.  And, as anyone who has been following politics knows, it certainly isn’t a slow news day.

So I am out of explanations as to why — in their upcoming Sunday Review feature ironically labeled “Gray Matter” — they would encourage corporate fat-shaming.   The Times is a publication to which we have previously given multiple accolades for being way out in front of the emerging consensus that conventional wellness –and corporate fat-shaming in particular — doesn’t work. And yet…

Jumping the Shark

Three researchers from the University of Pennsylvania published a study in Health Affairs showing that you can’t fine or pay people to lose weight.  It was a great study, and completely confirmed our own findings. Had they left it at that, it would have been one more nail in the “corporate weight loss challenge” coffin. But instead of reaching the obvious conclusion, based on the clear data, that incentives and penalties don’t work, they concluded that we simply haven’t found the right incentives yet.

No mention that maybe, just maybe, if it were possible to lose weight via behavioral economics, you wouldn’t need to treat employees like lab rats to get them to succeed at it.

Next, they did a small, non-peer-reviewed study of 281 employees in their own organization, and found that 15% of them would take some extra steps during a day if you paid them and then fined them–as compared to the alternative, which is what a normal organization would do: get really annoyed that these researchers are pestering their employees about the way they walk.

Oh, yes, and — exactly as most people, like Jon Robison, would predict — as soon as the incentives/penalties ended, the participants returned to their previous walking patterns.

The major questions left unanswered in this whole situation are:

(1) How do employees feel about being treated like the aforementioned lab rats?

(2) Why is it necessary to draw attention to employees’ weight, if they are getting the job done?

(3) Why should an employer care about any of these findings in the first place?

We can answer the last:  they shouldn’t. First, there is no correlation between employee weight and corporate performance. Second, almost no medical spending is avoidable by wellness programs.


  1. Sam says:

    LEAVE EMPLOYEES ALONE should be the message of this column. You can’t change their weight and it wouldn’t matter if you could.


  2. drjonrobison says:

    If I had a dollar for every time in the last 30 years some researcher claimed their “behavioral intervention” resulted in some short term weight loss for participants, I would never have to work another day in my life! When are we all (not just a few of us) going to stand up and call out this nonsense? And when are researchers going to stop subjecting people to interventions that are more likely to hurt than help them? – Dr. Jon


  3. Brad F says:

    The authors are agnostic on how to apply their findings in the workplace setting. Moreover, if you know Volpp et al.’s body of study, you also know the durability of changes a big deal to them. They raise the issue all the time.

    I have heard this group speak on many occasions. They are far from Orwellian. Also, as far as I know, they are not in the employ or underwriting tentacles of the wellness industry.

    It’s science. Use the data as you wish–for good ends or bad. Let’s hope the former.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Brad, you raise an interesting point. I was a BIG fan of Dr. Volpp’s work — until yesterday. Let’s apply behavioral economics to his own statements. If he follows the data, and says “This doesn’t work and even if people did lose a few pounds, it wouldn’t matter,” then I continue to be a big fan. But his reaction is more like: “There has to be a pony in here somewhere.”

      Using behavioral economics, he sets himself up for more grants etc. that way. I can tell you with certainty via personal experience that if you say “this doesn’t work,” they don’t send you more projects.

      And I agree–I have never heard anything Orwellian from this group. Like I say, up until yesterday, I had assumed they were members of the Welligentsia.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Brad, one other observation — the long-term “durability” changes were zero, by their own admission.


  4. Brad F says:

    You lost me. The pony, at least to me, bubbles up. Incentives in the form of loss outperform those structured as gains. Can you expand what you mean?


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      That’s a small study and they tried it different ways, and got a small improvement using one approach. And even though the improvement wasn’t lasting, they concluded that employers can improve the health of employees. And the only caveat is that the right behavioral economics carrot-stick combination is still not determined.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      by the way, you are welcome to get the “last word” this thread but I would leave it at, let’s see what happens next. Is the wellness industry going to jump on this or let it pass? What will the UPenn researchers’ next work be? Who will be sponsoring it?


  5. Marissa says:

    The U.Penn researchers are also equating weight loss with improved health,. That is quite a stretch. In my company (unnamed) there are a lot of people who simply crash-diet or fast before weigh-ins, to make sure they get their money.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Which is probably one reason, as we’ve noted in other postings on this site, there is basically zero improvement in health (as measured by event reduction) in the US that can be attributed to wellness programs. That’s using the data from Ron Goetzel’s company, Truven.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Someone needs to tell these behavioral economists that you can’t solve a complex physiology problem by throwing money at it.


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