Accessed January 20, 2011 from flickr.com
Title: That’s good eating! Phelps on the box of Corn Flakes
Name of photographer not given
Having Michael Phelps on a box of nutritious Corn Flakes says a lot: It illustrates at least 2 healthy behaviors (participating in sport, and the importance of breakfast) and suggests ways to create a healthy social and psychological environment through modeling. By influencing today’s cultural norms, like having Starbucks for breakfast in the car (or skipping breakfast altogether), sports icons could have a role to play in combating the “Big O” (a.k.a. obesity).
While Michael Phelps isn’t doing much in this picture, it illustrates how, in our culture and social environment, people will buy a product if someone they admire says (or in this case just implies) that it’s good. [In the absence of charts and figures to back this up, it’s inconceivable to me that the food industry would spend millions on such advertising if it wasn’t “grrrreat” business.] In fact, it’s not just products that people buy. According to Social Learning Theory, modeling is an extremely effective way to spread values, attitudes, thoughts and therefore behavior. People learn by observing others’ behaviors and consequences. If there seems to be a reward, people will imitate that behavior. (1)
In today’s sports, the fame, glory, and riches sure seem rewarding; Star athletes can be a powerful influence and inspiration. The (unanswered) question is “what behaviors do they inspire us to imitate? And what is the effect of these behaviors on population health?” For example, will Americans take after Phelps and start eating wholesome breakfasts? Or will his infamous (4000kcal) breakfast of champions become a gimmick for restaurants to promote big portion sizes (e.g. the 72 ounce steak challenge in Texas) and end up increasing obesity? (2) On the other hand, think of the possibilities for improving future health if everyone had the passion of an athlete. Imagine a Canada, where it’s normal and possible to go for a walk during lunch. Virtually everyone enjoys a sport of their own and pursues personal bests. And the sportsmanship doesn’t end on the field; the spirit of fair play shows itself in fair pay as well – which means food security for currently at-risk populations (those forced to buy low nutrient/high calorie diets because that’s the only way a low budget can fill empty stomachs).
What about the effects our cultural norms and values have on the potentially healthy messages role models are communicating? Norms such as using popular icons to endorse products [especially those maybe not so healthy e.g. Coke - the “official beverage of choice” for the Olympics, or MacDonald’s “Go for gold (french-fries)” campaign (3)] and values placed on entertainment and body-image, are part of a huge system that gives rise to obesity. For example, in professional hockey, it seems that instead of inspiring athleticism, the game is just another form of “eatertainment” (complete with an entire season of munchies and cold ones). And what about sports like figure skating? Will the message be “you need to be skinny to succeed”? Or will more people hear “skating can keep you in shape and be incredibly fun”?
It would seem then that commissioning star athletes as role models is really a messy business. But I say “everyone is a role model”. Unfortunately, modeling is often so passive; their may not even be direct personal contact. In fact, neither party may even be aware it! If people became more aware of this self-unlimiting culture-creating power, and more active as the models we are, I believe we’d have the social muscle to define our world.
The truth is that ordinary people, like you and I, have more influence than all the superstars in the world: When people feel closer in ability to others, it enhances self-efficacy and motivates us to perform because of the belief “if they can do it, so can I.” Superstar role models, on the other hand, only inspire when their success seems attainable. When it seems impossible, self-deﬂation results(1). Here’s to hoping that harnessing the power of role models starts with us.
1 Vescio J., Wilde K., Crosswhite J. (2005). Profiling sport role models to enhance initiatives for adolescent girls in physical education and sport. European Physical Education Review, 11(2), 153-170. doi: 10.1177/1356336X05052894