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  • Writer's pictureSacha Allen

Essay: Social Psychology

Prompt: Imagine you want to change people’s behavior towards eating more healthily. Use what you know about attitudes and attitude change to create a plan for how you would do this.


Unhealthy eating is a major issue in today’s society. A study that assessed dietary patterns in 187 different countries over ten years calls healthy eating a “global priority” (Imamura et al., 2015). Lack of healthy eating combined with a lack of exercise is a factor that contributes to widespread obesity. Childhood obesity is particularly problematic as it can lead to health issues in adult life (“Why Obesity Is a Health Problem,” 2013). Considering these facts, it is imperative that society’s attitude, and consequential behavior, towards healthy eating is changed. To change behavior, a strong attitude must be formed and this attitude must be adopted as socially normal. I believe these attitudes should be developed in two ways: forming a strong attitude in children, and changing the attitudes of those with a negative view of healthy eating. An effective plan to change healthy eating behavior requires these two aspects as well as proper exposure, learning, conditioning, and societal reinforcement.

Perhaps the most effective way to change people’s behavior towards healthy eating would be to start at a young age. Parents would play a large role in this part of the plan, as children use the information they receive from their parents to develop attitudes (Sanderson, 2010, p. 182). For this observational learning to work, parents would need to show constant positivity towards healthy foods. They could teach their children about the benefits of healthy eating and reinforce that healthy foods are good, and unhealthy foods are bad. A rule could be established that only healthy food is kept in the house to further express the parent’s attitude towards healthy eating. A key environment for developing a child’s attitude towards food is the grocery store. Children would see their parents only choosing healthy options and would hopefully model that behavior later in life. Operant conditioning could also be used by not allowing children to select unhealthy foods while grocery shopping. The rejection of an unhealthy snack would be an effective way of developing a negative attitude towards unhealthy foods. Due to the negativity bias, a negative attitude towards unhealthy food is just as, if not more important, than a positive attitude towards healthy food (Sanderson, 2010, p. 182).

Schools could also play an important role in children’s attitude formation. Serving healthy meals at lunch and discussing the benefits of healthy eating in the classroom are both ways in which children would receive information about healthy eating from their environment, and consequently develop a positive attitude towards it. This positive attitude towards healthy eating is extremely important. One study attempted to identify barriers to healthy eating in adolescents, with the hope that identifying these barriers would allow them to be reduced and consequently decrease teen obesity. One of the barriers to healthy eating found in the study was adolescents’ “perceptions of the concept of healthy eating” (Stevenson, Doherty, Barnett, Muldoon, & Trew, 2007). Therefore if children are taught to have a positive view of healthy eating, this perception will not be a barrier and they will likely engage in healthy eating behavior in the future.

While the environments created by parents and schools are extremely important, exposure is a key aspect in forming children’s attitudes. Children are constantly exposed to unhealthy food advertisements when watching television, which has contributed to the high rate of obesity in the United States (Sanderson, 2010, p. 180). My plan to form positive attitudes towards healthy eating in kids would involve changing the nature of these advertisements to promote healthy food and eating behavior. This behavior could also be expressed in programs geared towards children such as educational programs and cartoons. The negativity bias could be used again here to paint unhealthy eating in a negative light, perhaps by having the antagonist of a cartoon eat unhealthily. My hope is that by developing positive attitudes towards healthy eating and negative attitudes towards unhealthy eating at a young age, children will have healthy eating patterns later in life and, eventually, society will be composed of a healthy eating majority.

The second part of my plan involves changing the attitudes of those who may already have negative attitudes towards healthy eating. Exposure to unhealthy food is widespread in today’s society through the media, especially in television (Sanderson, 2010, p. 180). A key step in changing these attitudes would be a modification of advertisements to not only portray healthy eating in a positive light, but also to elicit negativity towards unhealthy foods. Advertisements of this nature should be shown on all television channels to ensure that people are constantly exposed to them. I would also apply this method to non-T.V. ads such as billboards and posters.

Another method to change people’s attitudes towards healthy eating would be conditioning. Classical conditioning could be used to form an association between happiness and healthy eating. For this method I assume that people feel happy when engaging in fun or leisurely activities with friends. For example, the unhealthy snacks and drinks served at movie theaters could be replaced with healthier options so that an association could be formed between this fun activity and eating healthily. Eventually a positive association may be made with healthy eating, and people’s attitude and behavior towards it may change. By establishing a positive attitude towards healthy eating through constant exposure and conditioning, it is my hope that cognitive dissonance will form between this attitude and the previous unhealthy eating behavior, resulting in a change in behavior (healthy eating) to match the new attitude.

Although positive attitudes towards healthy eating have been formed, it is not guaranteed that people will change their behavior to match these attitudes. There are a number of aspects my plan would include to strengthen the attitude-behavior link. First, these attitudes towards healthy eating would be made into social norms. This could be done using celebrity propaganda, as we can learn an attitude or behavior from someone we don’t know (Bandura, 1986). These celebrities would also be helpful in the development of prototypes. According to Sanderson (2010), “prototypes are social images of what people who engage in the behavior are like” (p. 194). If people believe that famous, wealthy, attractive people (celebrities) are healthy eaters, then they may develop a positive prototype and will likely want to eat healthier. Exposure would also play a key role in creating a social norm of healthy eating behavior and would be helpful in enforcing this behavior throughout society. If people are more exposed to the behavior, they will like it more and may be more likely to partake in it (Sanderson, 2010, p. 183). Commercials and programs that paint healthy eating behavior in a positive light and unhealthy eating in a negative light would be an effective method in exposing people to these behaviors. A 1967 study found that television clips are an effective way of observational learning. (Sanderson, 2010, p. 187). T.V. shows with a storyline about a character whose negative attitude towards healthy eating changes, or with characters who only eat healthy foods as a normal part of their daily lives, may be effective in portraying healthy eating as a social norm.

The theory of planned behavior is also an important aspect of the link between attitude and behavior. The theory “describes people’s behavior as caused by their attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control” (Sanderson, 2010, p. 193). A 2015 study found that if people think it is difficult to eat healthily, then they have less intention of doing so (Ajzen, 2015). Because of this, an effective plan to change eating behavior would need to make healthy eating easy for everyone by making it more accessible. Accessibility is another factor that plays a role in whether an attitude leads to a matching behavior. This could be done by eliminating unhealthy foods in grocery stores while increasing the quantity and variety of healthy foods, as well as selling healthy foods for reasonable prices. More healthy options in stores may also give people higher perceived behavioral control which, according to the theory of planned behavior, would increase their likelihood of eating healthily. Accessibility to a healthy eating attitude could also be increased through exposure, namely media materials such as posters and billboards that would allow people to see evidence of the attitude all around them. Another part of accessibility is situational factors, specifically those that increase self-awareness. The more self-aware people are in a situation, the more likely it is that their attitudes will lead to the corresponding behavior (Sanderson, 2010, p. 191). To increase self-awareness in eating environments, cafeterias, restaurants, and even home kitchens could have mirrors on the walls so that people can see themselves eating. Seeing themselves in the mirror would make them more self-aware and, as a result, more likely to engage in behavior that matches their positive attitude towards healthy eating.

In conclusion, it is very important that people around the world engage in healthy eating. My plan in changing this behavior involves first forming strong positive attitudes towards healthy eating (as well as negative attitudes towards unhealthy eating) in children and those with existing attitudes. I would do this using information, learning, conditioning, and exposure, and would then strengthen the attitude-behavior link through prototypes, accessibility and social norms. A healthy diet is key in reducing non-communicable diseases such as certain cancers, heart diseases, and type 2 diabetes (“Unhealthy Diets and Obesity,” 2017). Therefore it is imperative that some type of plan to encourage healthy eating is implemented globally. Hopefully, such a plan is carried out sooner rather than later.



[Midterm assignment for a social psychology course in Geneva, Switzerland]




References


Ajzen, I. (2015). Consumer Attitudes and Behavior: The theory of planned behavior applied to food consumption decisions. Rivista di Economia Agraria. 70. 121-138. 10.13128/REA-18003. doi:10.4324/9780203809570.ch20


Bandura, A., & Menlove, F. L. (1968). Factors determining vicarious extinction of avoidance behavior through symbolic modeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,8(2, Pt.1), 99-108. doi:10.1037/h0025260


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prenctice Hall.


Imamura, F., Micha, R., Khatibzadeh, S., Fahimi, S., Shi, P., Powles, J., & Mozaffarian, D. (2015). Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: A systematic assessment. The Lancet Global Health,3(3). doi:10.1016/s2214-109x(14)70381-x


Sanderson, C. A. (2010). Social Psychology. Place of publication not identified: John Wiley & Sons.


Stevenson, C., Doherty, G., Barnett, J., Muldoon, O. T., & Trew, K. (2007). Adolescents’ views of food and eating: Identifying barriers to healthy eating. Journal of Adolescence,30(3), 417-434. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2006.04.005


Unhealthy Diets and Obesity. (2017). Retrieved from https://ncdalliance.org/unhealthy-diets-and-obesity


Why Obesity Is a Health Problem. (2013, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/healthy-weight-basics/obesity.htm

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