Blame it on what the study researchers call the "boomerang effect," whereby efforts to change behaviors backfire because people decide to do the opposite of what's advised.
In the study, which has recently been accepted into the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, researchers provided 134 participants with two different messages. Some of the people read about the health hazards of eating a high-fat diet and then read nothing more. The other participants not only read about the dangers of eating unhealthy foods, but then were exposed to messaging about a weight-loss aid that said it was "capable of absorbing up to 60 percent of the fat" in food. Next, the volunteers were given a plate of 30 cookies.
How the boomerang effect causes people to choose unhealthy foods
Those who were exposed to the weight-loss aid messaging ate significantly more than those who were not. In some instances, people ate all 30 cookies. According to authors of the study, "Weight management remedies that promise to reduce the risks of being overweight may undermine consumer motivation to engage in health-supportive behaviors."
Marketing professor at Penn State and study author Lisa Bolton, pointed to the aforementioned boomerang effect, saying, "People see the drug as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card" that reduces not only overall weight-loss motivation but the feeling that people have the power within themselves to lose weight on their own. "Why make healthier food choices to manage weight if a weight-management drug can manage your weight for you?" the authors conclude.
The fact that people tend to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors once the promise of a weight-loss aid becomes part of the equation can be dangerous. First, it reinforces a kind of false dependency on the power of a diet pill, pills which already have a less-than-favorable perception in the public eye due to the fact that some, such as Meridia and Fen-Phen, have been taken off the market because of the severe health risks that they pose. Furthermore, reliance on weight-loss aids creates the feeling that people can easily undo bad eating habits while at the same time continue to keep at it; popping a pill, many think, cancels out the junk foods that they consumed prior and makes the behavior acceptable.
Bolton uses finance to illustrate how the quick-fix solution of a wight-loss aid can be detrimental. "Just being exposed to marketing for a debt-consolidation loan makes you think, 'Hey, the risks of my credit-card spending aren't too bad, because if I do get into trouble, I can get one of these debt-consolidation loans,'" she said.
She went on to explain that such thinking diminishes the perceived severity of risks while also creating the feeling that it's alright to engage in more risky financial behaviors. In the same manner, weight-loss aids create a security blanket, a place where people think they can turn to when the issue becomes too much for them to manage on their own.