Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has just released a report on what does — and does not — motivate people to change their behavior for the better. After analyzing hundreds of research studies involving over 65,000 people and 47 different kinds of behavior, the ESRC’s team of researchers had this to say about motivating people to be healthy: “You can’t scare people into getting fit.”

This finding is quite a contrast to the essential assumption of the scare-based campaigns aimed at combating America’s obesity “epidemic.” The public officials, weight-loss industry reps, advocacy groups, and “concerned” intellectuals leading the charge have a habit of haphazardly bandying about whatever ominous statistics they can find, evidently to arouse fear and bolster their case for more government intrusion into our personal lives. Their list of touted “facts” is as pervasive as it is long: Obesity kills 400,000 Americans annually, obesity costs the nation $117 billion a year, this is the first generation of children that are not expected to live longer than their parents, etc.

As we’ve shown you before, these “facts” are all wrong. But if the ESRC’s findings (and other studies that draw similar conclusions) are right, these fact-challenged campaigns might spur overzealous legislators to pass some silly laws, but they’re ineffective at changing individual consumer behavior.

What’s the good news in all this? The ESRC’s research teaches that the most successful change comes from voluntary, personal decisions (not from the meddling of faceless government bureaucrats):

The most effective strategies-that had ‘large’ effects on behavior-were to prompt practice, set specific goals, generate self-talk, agree on a behavioral contract, and prompt review of behavioral goals.

The implication of this is something we already knew: While motivation from within helps people trim their waistlines, “solutions” imposed from without (including fat taxes, menu labels, zoning restrictions, and outright food bans) are nothing more than a waste of lawmakers’ time and consumers’ money.