I’ve believed for a long time now that there is a hint of truth in every joke…and never did I learn that more than this weekend. Word to the wise: don’t joke about somebody’s girlfriend getting fat because she’s in a relationship. Just don’t. Even if it makes perfect sense. Luckily, the response I got was “Funny you say that. Here, take a look at this article..” *friend goes into bathroom to retrieve magazine* Oh boys…
The article that my friend was referring to is from Time magazine and is titled “First Comes Love, Then Comes Obesity?” (hence the title of this post). The article basically confirmed some of my worst fears about human nature. A few highlights:
- Within a few short years of getting hitched, married individuals are twice as likely to become obese as are people who are merely dating.
- Not only are married people more likely to become obese than those who are just dating, but young people who move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend tend to pack on the pounds too.
- The study notes that unmarried women who have been living with their sweeties for five years or less run a 63% increased risk of obesity. What about unmarried men? On average, they have no increased risk during cohabitation.
Now, this study was published in a journal called Obesity, so I am unclear as to the level of analytical rigor in its article review process. (I don’t say that for any reason other than I am not familiar with said journal.) Since marriage/cohabitation/whatever is a choice, I would hope that the study at least tried to correct for the selection bias in the control (non-attached) versus the experimental (attached) group. In other words, there could be something about the people who chose to live together and/or get married that is also causing them to get fatter. If this is the case, these people would have gotten fatter regardless of whether they were in relationships. Therefore, the relationships themselves could be taking the blame for something they they didn’t actually cause. (For a refresher course on correlation versus causation, see here.)
The article gives several logistical hypotheses for the findings- increased importance of mealtime, for example. That said, my brain has been carefully trained to look for incentives everywhere. Unfortunately, this fact causes me to come up with such socially-questionable explanations as “marriage creates bad incentives.” I’m such a romantic…but I really do have a valid point. When you marry someone, you are (theoretically) contracting on staying with them forever, no matter what. Given that your spouse is stuck with you, what incentive do you have to, oh I don’t know, go to the gym, not sit on the couch and eat potato chips (mmmm, potato chips), etc? People (usually men, in my experience) seem shocked when their partners don’t act the same after they get married than before, but why would they when the incentives are so different?
This is the classic moral hazard problem. Moral hazard refers to the concept that a person behaves differently when she is insulated from the risk of her actions. The example usually used when talking about moral hazard is insurance- people generally drive in more risky ways when they have car insurance than they would if they weren’t insured, since they don’t have to bear the full cost of getting in an accident. (Before you object, consider that a lot of the change in behavior could be happening at a subconscious level.) Even if the spouses really care about each other, the lack of dumping potential results in a form of insurance that is likely to change behavior.
Luckily, there are factors that serve to mitigate the change in behavior. Just as there are non-financial reasons (pain, inconvenience, etc.) to not get in a car accident, one would hope that there are non-mating reasons (self-respect and health come to mind) for not becoming a fatass. I think the study described above is interesting in that, other than stating the anecdotally obvious, it gives some insight into the relative importance of the reasons for taking care of one’s self.
So why does the study report that even unmarried couples seem to exhibit the same type of incentive problem? If you’re not married, there is no legal string forcing another person to put up with you and all of your, um, personal growth, if you will. Yet the moral hazard still exists. Some possible explanations:
- There are other logistical factors, such as cohabitation or children, that make separation difficult in the same way that marriage would.
- The partner doesn’t properly account for sunk costs and will stick around because (s)he “has already invested so much in the relationship.” (In case you’ve forgotten, sunk costs are those investments that you’ve made that you can’t get back regardless of your future choices. Therefore, sunk costs shouldn’t affect your future decision-making process, but most people find them hard to ignore.)
In case you’re curious, I’m not in reality *quite* as cynical as I seem here, but I’m close, since people are, well, human and imperfect. A few days ago I had an ex-boyfriend promise that if I ever got married he would be a bridesmaid…complete with dress and all. I’m not sure whether this speaks more to my marriage prospects or to his tolerance for humiliation.
I figured that Jessica Hagy would have a nice card on the topic, but surprisingly this was the closest I could find:
It took me a second to get it, but it’s sort of amazing. The best part about this, in my opinion, is that the caption is “Here’s an ugly model.” 🙂