Study shows peer influence, status play role in female weight gain


April 24, 2013

Higher status peers influence weight gain in college females, less so for males

A new study led by a Marquette University professor shows that female weight gain is influenced by peers of a higher status, with little evidence of the same peer effects for males. The project, led by Dr. Olga Yakusheva, associate professor of economics in the College of Business Administration, will be published in early-2014 in the Journal of Human Resources, a premier economics journal.

Titled “Estimating Heterogeneous and Hierarchical Peer Effects on Body Weight Using Roommate Assignments as a Natural Experiment,” Yakusheva and collaborators Drs. Kandice Kapinos and Daniel Eisenberg examined weight gain in 751 male and 845 female first-year college students and their roommates.

The study finds evidence of significant peer influences for females, but not for males – especially when the peer is thinner, of a higher socioeconomic status or is more sexually experienced. Peer influence is stronger for heavy and thin females, and when peers are similar with respect to their religious and political views.

According to Yakusheva, the study’s most intriguing implication is the notion that what you eat and drink and how you look just may, in fact, not be your own business. “The take away for me is that your behaviors affect other people, especially those who may be looking up to you as a role model,” she said.

When an individual chooses to be fit and healthy, Yakusheva noted, they may not only be benefiting themselves but also people around them. “The study brings in this whole aspect of social responsibility, and really makes me personally pause and think before I make choices,” she added.

Kapinos, a senior associate with Abt Associates, agrees. “This study further demonstrates the importance of peer influence when it comes to weight. It can help policymakers and others consider these factors when designing policies and programs to target obesity.”

The complete study is scheduled to appear in the Journal of Human Resources (Winter 2014, Volume 49, Issue 1) in early-February 2014. For a manuscript or to interview Yakusheva, please contact Christopher Stolarski, senior communication specialist, at (414) 288-1988 or