When Your Doctor Is Fitter Than You Are

“I enjoy working out at the gym,” declares one profile. “To keep myself fit, I like to hike, bike and exercise,” says another.

These comments aren’t part of a dating site. Rather, they come from physicians’ online profiles that prospective patients view when they are looking for a new doctor.

There are good reasons doctors might strive to lead by example. “I practice what I preach by living healthy every day,” declares one physician on Kaiser Permanente’s online doctor search portal. Patients may trust or be inspired by such a doctor, the thinking goes. And if health care professionals fail to follow their own advice, they may be accused of hypocrisy.

But for some patients, particularly those battling weight issues, a doctor’s declarations of personal fitness may not have the intended effect of attracting new patients. Instead, rather than inspiring them, it can drive them away.

Recently, my colleague Benoît Monin and I studied doctors who advertise their fitness online. Past research has shown that people worry that those who claim the moral high ground will look down on others whose behavior seems unfavorable by comparison. For example, meat-eaters worry that vegetarians will judge them because of their diet. We wondered: Could emphasizing fitness make doctors seem “healthier than thou” and turn off patients?

We thought that people who are overweight and obese might be particularly sensitive to judgment from doctors. Unlike unhealthy habits such as smoking, weight can’t be hidden. Research shows that negative attitudes toward people who are overweight are surprisingly prevalent among health professionals. So potential patients who are overweight might be especially turned off by doctors who show off healthy habits.

To test this idea, in research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we turned to the real-world examples of physicians practicing what they preach on the website for Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the United States. Here, patients choose among dozens of doctors from self-descriptions only a few sentences long, making any information provided consequential. We asked adults who were overweight or obese to rate a sample of these profiles. Some...

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