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.