Many Have Subconscious Bias Against Obese

Many Have Sub­con­scious Bias Against Obese: Study

By Ali­son McCook 

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) — New study find­ings show that even when peo­ple don’t believe they are biased against the over­weight, those bias­es often exist at sub­con­scious lev­els, and may creep out in sub­tle ways.

Dr. Bethany A. Teach­man and her col­leagues dis­cov­ered that even when peo­ple say they do not have neg­a­tive feel­ings toward the over­weight, a word asso­ci­a­tion exer­cise shows that they do.

These neg­a­tive stereo­types about the over­weight appeared even when peo­ple were told before the word exer­cise that obe­si­ty most­ly results from a per­son­’s genet­ic make­up, the authors report.

Peo­ple who are over­weight are the sub­jects of dis­crim­i­na­tion in many areas of life, Teach­man said, and these “anti-fat” soci­etal mes­sages may influ­ence our think­ing in sub­tle ways, even if we try to fight against them.

“One pos­si­bil­i­ty is that despite our best inten­tions to be tol­er­ant and non­judg­men­tal, we are still great­ly affect­ed by the cul­tur­al mes­sage that being over­weight is a moral weak­ness, and mes­sages that neg­a­tive­ly por­tray over­weight peo­ple in the media,” Teach­man said.

“Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is that implic­it bias­es reflect atti­tudes and beliefs that a per­son is aware of, but does not feel it is social­ly accept­able to report,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia researcher added.

Dur­ing the study, Teach­man, along with Dr. Kel­ly Brownell and col­leagues asked 144 peo­ple to report how they felt about what “fat peo­ple are like.” Some par­tic­i­pants were first shown a made-up “research study” that said obe­si­ty was caused pri­mar­i­ly by genet­ics; oth­er par­tic­i­pants were giv­en a dif­fer­ent “study” to read, this one said extra pounds were most often due to overeat­ing and lack of exer­cise. A third group was giv­en no study to read.

The par­tic­i­pants then com­plet­ed a word exer­cise designed to tease out neg­a­tive bias­es that they might uncon­scious­ly hold against the obese.

In the cur­rent issue of Health Psy­chol­o­gy, Teach­man and her col­leagues report that the word exer­cise revealed that many people–even those who say they have no anti-fat biases–have sub­con­scious, neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions with being overweight.

These sub­con­scious bias­es may crop up in many sit­u­a­tions of dai­ly life, Teach­man said in an inter­view, such as when we walk down the street, hear a “fat joke,” or any sit­u­a­tion in which we have to react spon­ta­neous­ly to an over­weight person.

“For exam­ple, past research has found that implic­it anti-fat bias­es pre­dict­ed how far peo­ple want­ed to sit from a per­son who was over­weight,” she said.

Oth­er stud­ies have shown that focus­ing on images of pos­i­tive African-Amer­i­can role mod­els can help peo­ple over­come their uncon­scious race bias­es, and the same tech­nique could help com­bat the stig­ma of obe­si­ty, Teach­man offered.

“I hope that we will con­tin­ue to see changes in the medi­a’s pre­sen­ta­tion of over­weight per­sons,” she added, “includ­ing more com­mon por­tray­als and reflec­tions of over­weight per­sons in all of life’s diverse pro­fes­sion­al, fam­i­ly, and roman­tic roles, rather than the typ­i­cal neg­a­tive portrayal.”

Oth­er changes that could dis­pel some neg­a­tive stereo­types about the obese include dis­cour­ag­ing “fat jokes,” and encour­ag­ing edu­ca­tion about the caus­es of obe­si­ty, “so that the cur­rent myths that obe­si­ty is entire­ly an indi­vid­u­al’s fault because of lack of will pow­er and over eat­ing can be cor­rect­ed,” Teach­man said. 

The research was fund­ed by the Rudd Foundation.
SOURCE: Health Psy­chol­o­gy 2003;22:68–78.

Cyn is Katie's mom, Esther's Mémé, and a Support Engineer. She lives in the Atlanta area with her life partner, Rick, and their critters. She knits, does counted-thread needlework, reads, makes music, plays TTRPGs, and spends too much time online.
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