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Peter A. Ubel Headshot

Fat Lazy Neighborhoods?

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If I told you that neighborhoods cause people to develop diabetes, would you believe me? And would that make you more or less willing to see your tax dollars spent researching ways to treat and prevent diabetes?

That is essentially the question my colleagues and I posed to a wide swath of Americans, and a question, we discovered, that polarizes people along political party lines.

What do I mean when I say that neighborhoods can cause diabetes? Well, social scientists have linked neighborhoods to disease. People living, for example, in neighborhoods with poor sidewalk access end up walking less than people in other kinds of neighborhoods, thereby gaining weight and developing diabetes. By a similar token, if a neighborhood is too dangerous for people to exercise outdoors, people become more sedentary and, voila, diabetes predictably ensues in a subset of the population. What's more, some neighborhoods have a terrible supply of grocery stores -- people living in such neighborhoods can easily avail themselves of fast food restaurants, but can't necessarily find fresh produce.

Often when people learn that forces beyond individual control contribute to illness, they become more supportive of public funding to combat those illnesses. In fact, in our study we provided a random subset of research participants with a news story explaining that diabetes is caused by genetics (this is true, by the way -- genes do contribute to diabetes.) People reading this news story -- whether Republican or Democrat -- became more supportive of spending public funds to treat and prevent diabetes.

Then we gave another subset of participants a different news story. This one explained that diabetes is caused by neighborhoods. Once again, hearing about the forces that contribute to diabetes made Democrats more interested in spending money on diabetes research. But the Republicans who read this news story weren't persuaded; in fact, they became less willing to use tax money to tackle the diabetes epidemic.

It is easy to believe that our country is politically polarized simply because people have gravitated toward partisan media outlets. Watch Fox news and you will hear about Tea Party demonstrations; watch MSNBC and you will hear about Gay Rights demonstrations. No surprise that when people receive imbalanced information, they end up with polarized attitudes.

However, our study shows that our nation's political divisions run much deeper than the Glenn Beck/Keith Olbermann divide. In our study, Republicans and Democrats came to starkly different opinions from each other even after receiving identical information about the cause of diabetes. Hearing about neighborhood effects on diabetes brought out compassion among Democrats, but not so much among Republicans. As some of my Republican friends tell me when I talk to them about neighborhoods and illness: "The neighborhood doesn't force people to eat at McDonalds. Even if a neighborhood is dangerous, people can do Pilates in their living rooms if they're motivated."

True enough. Human behavior is ultimately the main cause of diabetes. But no person's behavior is completely under their own control. Social forces can influence people's behavior -- the kinds of social forces that differ across neighborhoods, for example. Sadly, when people think about these other forces, some are more convinced than others, and these divisions run across predictable party lines.

To reduce partisanship in this country, we need to educate more people about the complexity of human nature. I wonder if the 24 hour news channels will find the time to do that!

Our study, led by Sarah Gollust, was published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

My most recent book is Free Market Madness. Read more of my blogs here.