If obesity becomes the norm, will people get fatter “to keep up with the Joneses?”

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If human beings care about their relative weight, a form of imitative obesity can emerge (in which people subconsciously keep up with the weight of the Joneses). Using Eurobarometer data on 29 countries, this paper provides cross-sectional evidence that overweight perceptions and dieting are influenced by a person’s relative BMI, and longitudinal evidence from the German Socioeconomic Panel that well-being is influenced by relative BMI. Highly educated people see themselves as fatter − at any given actual weight − than those with low education. These results should be treated cautiously, and fixed-effects estimates are not always well-determined, but there are grounds to take seriously the possibility of socially contagious obesity.

Source: “Imitative Obesity and Relative Utility” from IZA Discussion Paper No. 4010, February 2009

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