Public and health professionals’ misconceptions about the dynamics of body weight gain/loss

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Abstract

Human body energy storage operates as a stock-and-flow system with inflow (food intake) and outflow (energy expenditure). In spite of the ubiquity of stock-and-flow structures, evidence suggests that human beings fail to understand stock accumulation and rates of change, a difficulty called the stock–flow failure. This study examines the influence of health care training and cultural background in overcoming stock–flow failure. A standardized protocol assessed lay people's and health care professionals’ ability to apply stock-and-flow reasoning to infer the dynamics of weight gain/loss during the holiday season (621 subjects from seven countries). Our results indicate that both types of subjects exhibited systematic errors indicative of use of erroneous heuristics. Indeed 76% of lay subjects and 71% of health care professionals failed to understand the simple dynamic impact of energy intake and energy expenditure on body weight. Stock–flow failure was found across cultures and was not improved by professional health training. The problem of stock–flow failure as a transcultural global issue with education and policy implications is discussed. Copyright © 2014 System Dynamics Society

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