Sunday, October 28, 2007

An exploratory analysis into the social psychology of obesity

Abstract: The prevalence of obesity in Western society is on the rise, with no sign of slowing down. Obesity is a heterogeneous disorder, with numerous variables contributing to its aetiology. Today, obesity has reached epidemic proportions, in both the adult and child populations. Obesity can have a number of negative impacts on one’s physical, psychological and social functioning. The first aim of this essay is to address the key social, psychological and physical variables which can contribute to the aetiology of obesity. The second aim of this essay is to explore how obese people are viewed and treated by society. The third aim of this essay is to explore society’s attitudes towards obese people using social psychological theory and research.

Obesity occurs when an individual has, “a greater than twenty percent increase over average body weight” (Berk, 2004, p.278). According to the National Health Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2004, approximately 16.4% of Australian adults are obese, with 17.8% of males and 15.1% of females falling into the obese weight range (ABS, 2006). Not only has obesity reached epidemic proportions in the adult population, it has also become a dominating issue faced by children. Obesity impacts heavily on one’s physical health, substantially increasing the risks of developing serious medical problems. Not only does obesity have a significant impact on one’s physical health, but it can also have serious effects on one’s emotional, psychological and social functioning (Berk).

Figure 1. The aetiology, consequences and social psychology of obesity.

The aetiology of obesity is complex, with numerous social, psychological and physical variables contributing to the development of obesity (See Figure 1). The key contributor to obesity is maladaptive patterns of eating, where one eats an unhealthy, unbalanced diet of high-calorie, fatty foods. Decreased amounts of physical activity and increased time spent engaging in sedentary behaviours have also been linked to obesity. Crespo et al. (2001) found that children who watched four or more hours of television each day had an increased risk of obesity.

Campbell, Crawford, and Ball (2006) found similar results, finding that increased television viewing led to increased energy intake among children. Connected with the issue of increased television watching is the issue of advertising. Children are constantly bombarded with appealing images of unhealthy, junk foods on television. Some companies even entice children to eat unhealthy foods by including toys or by covering the packaging of their products with cartoon characters. With children watching an increased amount of television these days, commercials and product advertising can be very influential on what a child desires or chooses to eat (Nelson, Gortmaker, Subramanian, Cheung, & Wechsler, 2007).

Modeling of unhealthy eating behaviours also plays a role in the aetiology of obesity. If a child is surrounded by tempting food cues in his or her home and school environments, a child is more likely to pick up unhealthy eating habits, especially if family members and friends model unhealthy eating behaviours. Campbell et al. (2006) found children ate more fruits and vegetables if their parents modeled this behaviour. In contrast, the risk of obesity in children increased significantly if unhealthy eating habits were modeled by parents.

Research by Strauss and Knight (1999), found that the most significant predictors of childhood obesity were a lack of cognitive stimulation, parental occupation and socioeconomic status (SES). Children from low SES backgrounds were found to have an increased risk of obesity. Children whose parents were unemployed or had nonprofessional occupations were also found to be at a heightened risk of becoming obese. Another predictor identified in this study was maternal obesity. Children with obese mothers presented a three fold increased risk of becoming obese themselves, indicating both a genetic component and a learned behaviour component. African American children and children of single mothers were also found to present higher rates of obesity.

Research by Goodman and Whitaker (2002) found that unsafe neighbourhoods and a lack of facilities, such as playgrounds and recreational centres, contribute to the obesity epidemic. These factors, which were found predominately in low SES areas, were found to increase social isolation and limit physical activity. Research by Maffeis (2000) and Wardle, Waller, and Jarvis (2002) also found a positive correlation between low SES and obesity, and found that a lack of safe play areas in low SES communities was a contributing variable.

A study conducted by Bulik, Sullivan, and Kendler (2003) found a significant concordance rate of obesity in monozygotic twins, indicating that obesity has a genetic component. Certain medical conditions have also been found to contribute to or exacerbate obesity, such as having a thyroid condition or a slow metabolism (Berk, 2004). In addition to physical contributors of obesity, psychological and emotional variables can also impact upon one’s weight. In a study conducted by Goodman and Whitaker (2002), it was found that depression was a significant predictor of obesity in a sample of adolescents. If not appropriately treated, psychological factors such as depression and anxiety can increase one’s food intake, and in the long run, contribute significantly to weight gain.

Obesity is a highly stigmatised disorder, with social marginalisation, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping common problems faced by obese individuals (See Figure 1). As a result, obese individuals face a number of social disadvantages in various areas such as employment and interpersonal relationships (Puhl and Latner, 2007). The formation and maintenance of social relationships is a very salient issue. Obese individuals tend to have fewer friendships and intimate relationships and are often stereotyped as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, unattractive, less hardworking, untrustworthy and unpopular (Hebl & Mannix, 2003). Goodman and Whitaker (2002) found that the social stigma associated with obesity promotes feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt among obese individuals. Therefore, not only can depression contribute to the aetiology of obesity, it can also be a consequence of obesity. Puhl and Brownell (2003) have found that those who are exposed to obesity related stigma are vulnerable to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, social isolation, rejection from peers and economic problems.

Hebl and Mannix (2003) conducted a study which demonstrated the presence of a mere proximity effect, or stigma by association. A male job applicant had his photo taken under two different conditions. In the first condition, the man was seated next to an average weight woman. In the second condition, he was seated next to the same woman, only this time she was wearing an obese prosthesis. The participants in this study were required to evaluate the male job applicant on a number of levels. Ratings on professional qualities, interpersonal skills and overall willingness to hire the male job applicant suffered when the raters viewed the photo of him sitting next to the obese woman. In contrast, the applicant was not evaluated as negatively when the photo with the average weight woman was presented in his application packet. The results indicated that being merely proximally associated with an obese person can trigger stigmatisation.

King, Shapiro, Hebl, Singletary, and Turner (2006) conducted a study focusing on covert discrimination and its relationship with the Justification Suppression Model (JSM). The JSM states that prejudice is either followed by a justification, or a suppression of the prejudice (Crandall & Eshleman, 2003, cited in King et al.). This model proposes that if an individual believes that prejudice is justified, they are more likely to express it. While formal discrimination is less common today as a result of social norms, subtle, interpersonal discrimination towards obese people has increased. Forms of interpersonal or covert discrimination include a lack of smiling, a lack of eye contact and increased rudeness.

King et al. (2006) focused on the interpersonal discrimination of obese people in customer service. It was found that interactions with the obese customers lasted a significantly shorter period of time than the average weight customers. Interactions with obese customers also involved significantly more negative affective language and interpersonal forms of discrimination. However, it was also found that when an obese customer mentioned that they were on a diet and was viewed consuming a low fat drink, covert discrimination was significantly less. However, if an obese customer was drinking a high calorie beverage, discrimination significantly increased, supporting the JSM. If an obese customer mentioned that they were dieting or exercising, covert discrimination was also significantly reduced. This indicates that if it is perceived that the obese person is taking responsibility for their condition and trying to lose weight, discrimination occurs less frequently.

Obesity is often viewed as controllable, so empathy is not often displayed to obese individuals. Holding a belief in a just world could explain the lack of empathy towards obese individuals, as people believe that obese people are responsible for their weight and have brought it on themselves. Since many perceive obesity as a controllable condition, the attached stigma is often unyielding (Puhl & Brownwell, 2003). As King et al.’s (2006) research indicated, if an obese person is perceived as taking responsibility for their weight, they are more likely to experience less interpersonal discrimination and prejudice. Because of the perceived controllability of one’s weight, people often make internal attributions towards obese people and attribute obese people as being greedy and having no self-discipline. That is, people often make the fundamental attribution error, where they attribute a person’s obesity to internal causes or traits and largely overlook external causes (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).

Another theory which could explain the negative reactions to obese people is the social identity theory. In an attempt to maintain their own positive social identity, people engage in social categorisation and make downward social comparisons to enhance their own self-esteem. One method in which people do this is by stereotyping other groups, such as obese people, as inferior or incompatible with their own group (Puhl & Brownwell, 2003). Obesity related stigma could also be explained by the ‘what is beautiful is good effect’, which states that those with physically attractive features are often ascribed more positive traits (Puhl & Brownwell). Since obese individuals do not tend to have the physical features which typify attractiveness, they are often ascribed more negative traits.

Since childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adulthood obesity, this issue needs to be confronted very early on in a child’s life. Once unhealthy behaviours develop, they are can be extremely inflexible and resistant to change, so healthy behaviours need to be instilled in children from a very early age. Obesity can be very damaging, not only to an individual’s physical health, but also to an individual’s psychological, emotional and social functioning.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2006). National health survey: Summary of results. Retrieved 1 October, 2007, from$File/43640_2004-05.pdf

Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

Berk, L.E. (2004). Development through the lifespan. (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bulik, C.M., Sullivan, P.F., & Kendler, K.S. (2003). Genetic and environmental contributions to obesity and binge eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33, 293-298.

Campbell, K.J., Crawford, D.A., & Ball, K. (2006). Family food environment and dietary behaviours likely to promote fatness in 5-6 year-old children. International Journal of Obesity, 30, 1272-1280.

Crespo, C.J., Smit, E., Troiano, R.P., Bartlett, S.J., Macera, C.A., & Anderson, R.E. (2001). Television watching, energy intake and obesity in US children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 155, 360-365.

Goodman, E., & Whitaker, R.C. (2002). A prospective study of the role of depression in the development and persistence of adolescent obesity. Pediatrics, 109, 497-504.

Hebl, M.R., & Mannix, L.M. (2003). The weight of obesity in evaluating others: A mere proximity effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 28-38.

King, E.B., Shapiro, J.R., Hebl, M.R., Singletary, S.L., & Turner, S. (2006). The stigma of obesity in customer service: A mechanism for remediation and bottom-line consequences of interpersonal discrimination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 579-593.

Maffeis, C. (2000). Aetiology of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. European Journal of Pediatrics, 159, 34-44.

Nelson, T.F., Gortmaker, S.L., Subramanian, S.V., Cheung, L., & Wechsler, H. (2007). Disparities in overweight and obesity among US college students. American Journal of Health Behaviour, 31, 363-373.

Puhl, R.M., & Brownell, K.D. (2003). Psychological origins of obesity stigma: Toward changing a powerful and pervasive bias. Obesity Reviews, 4, 213-227.

Puhl, R.M., & Latner, J.D. (2007). Stigma, obesity and the health of the nation’s children. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 557-580.

Strauss, R.S., & Knight, J. (1999). Influence of the home environment on the development of obesity in children. Pediatrics, 103, 85-92.

Wardle, J., Waller, J., & Jarvis, M.J. (2002). Sex differences in the association of socioeconomic status with obesity. American Journal of Public Health, 92, 1299-1304.

Appendix A


Research and Theory

For my second blog essay, I feel that I identified and referenced a number of the most current and informative research studies on the topic of obesity. I feel that my literature search on this topic was thorough and extensive and resulted in a selection of high quality articles. The literature sources I have included are very recent and up to date studies which focus on the social, psychological and physical contributors to the obesity epidemic. I feel that I was able to effectively identify and explore a number of social psychology theories pertinent to the issue of obesity and relate them back to the research findings.

Written expression

My essay follows the conventions of the APA format, as I have included an informative title, abstract, introduction, body, conclusion, in text citations, a reference list and two appendices, including a self assessment. I also decided to embed a concept map in my essay in an effort to enhance readability. I feel that my writing style is clear and easy to follow. While the readability of my essay was not originally at the desired level (Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 15.4) through editing, I was able to improve the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level to the desired level of 12.

Word Count: 1,552 (Abstract, citations, figures, references and appendices not included)

Online engagement

I feel that my online engagement has been strong throughout the second half of the semester. I have made a series of blog posts pertaining to my blog topic, and I have made a number of in-depth comments on other students’ blogs. My efforts with this assessment component is reflected in the fact that I received three stars for my online contributions, indicating that I had a very active and regular blog. I embedded a couple of videos about obesity into my blog, posed questions to other students, provided resources, embedded pictures and a graph, discussed some research findings on obesity, provided a link to a healthy lifestyle quiz, two draft concept maps, an outline of my essay plan and I attempted to enhance the appearance and readability of my blog. Not only did I post a number of comments on other blogs, but I also received a number of responses to my blog posts, indicating good interaction with fellow students. Please see Appendix B for a list of links to my blog posts. Please refer to the white side bar on my blog for a list of links to the eleven comments and replies I made from weeks eight to fifteen.

Appendix B

Blog Postings from Weeks 8-15

Blog 2 Topic - Obesity

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