Healthier Than Thou? “Practicing What You Preach” Backfires by Increasing Anticipated Devaluation

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Should experts always practice what they preach? When an expert displays exemplary behavior, individuals who fear negative devaluation sometimes anticipate that this expert will look down on them. As a result, displays of excellence can paradoxically turn off the very people they are trying to inspire. Five studies document this in the medical domain, showing that individuals who are overweight or obese and concerned about their weight avoid physicians who advertise their fitness, for fear that these doctors will judge them negatively. People (erroneously) believe that doctors have healthier habits than other individuals (Study 1), doctors advertise healthy habits (Study 2), and overweight individuals anticipate devaluation from, and thus avoid and feel less comfortable with, doctors who portray themselves as fitness-focused (Study 3). Studies 4 and 5 test strategies for physicians to emphasize their own fitness without turning off weight-sensitive patients. This work demonstrates that it is critical to take into account ego-defensive processes when attempting to lead by example.

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