Understanding the Role of Policy Narratives and the Public Policy Arena: Obesity as a Lesson in Public Policy Development



As witnessed by recent national policy battles over health care and climate change, the policy environment in the United States (U.S.) is increasingly politically polarized. U.S. public policy is progressively driven by divisive symbols and dominated by morality debates often articulated in the form of emotional narratives. One such issue that has gained attention in the U.S., partially due to efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama, is the increasing levels of obesity. Obesity policy advocates warn that the U.S. is facing a crisis that impacts not only our health, but our national competitiveness; not only our military preparedness, but our national security. Our goal is not to get involved in the scientific debate over obesity and its costs to society but rather to explore the role that policy narratives and causal attribution play in determining attitudes toward obesity and obesity policy. We contend that an individual's view of obesity is shaped by their view of individual rights and responsibilities and of individual morality; and determined more by stories (especially narratives that “fit” with those views) than by science. Our paper seeks to test whether science or other factors primarily shape one's view of government's appropriate role relative to the obesity issue and to examine which of two foundational moral narratives is more convincing in the obesity policy realm. Using a sample of 172 respondents at two institutions of higher education in the United States, we find that a “Strict Father Morality” narrative was more convincing than a science statement in influencing an individual's view of obesity. Respondents believed that obesity was a serious problem, but they were deeply divided over government's role in addressing the obesity issue. Female respondents were the most supportive of governmental efforts to address obesity. We explore the potential impact of our findings for public policy development and future research.