In one of my earlier blog posts on obesity, I discussed some of the social factors which can contribute to the obesity epidemic, such as advertising, sedentary activities (e.g. computer games, television), socio-economic status, psychological factors such as depression and anxiety and physical factors such as genetics and medical conditions (e.g. thyroid conditions). The second section of my topic is to discuss how obese people are treated by society and what socio-psychological theories could be used to explain this. I have found a number of research articles which indicate that obese people are frequently discriminated against in society and stereotyped as being lazy, selfish, less hardworking, slovenly and generally less likeable. These negative stereotypes are very damaging to a person’s psychological, emotional and social functioning, as obese people thus tend to have fewer relationships and can become socially withdrawn. I am thinking about drawing on a few different sociopsychological theories in an attempt to explain why obese people are often discriminated against and negatively stereotyped.
* The fundamental attribution error: We tend to attribute a person’s weight to internal causes over external ones. Society thus believes that obesity is a controllable condition and occurs as a result of a person’s lack of willpower or lack of self-discipline, often failing to look at the external contributions.
* Beautiful is good effect: People who possess what society believes to be more attractive features are often ascribed more positive qualities. Since obese people do not typify what society considers to be “beautiful”, they are often ascribed more negative qualities.
* Using stereotypes as heuristics: Relying too heavily on stereotypes can further promote discrimination and prejudice.
* Social identity theory: In an effort to enhance or maintain self-esteem and a positive social identity, people make downward social comparisons and stereotype other groups, such as obese people, as inferior and incompatible with their own group.
* Lack of knowledge: The contact hypothesis could aid in overcoming this.
During my research on this topic, I read a very interesting study conducted by Hebl and Mannix (2003), which is also briefly discussed in the textbook on page 408. The researchers conducted an experiment looking at the mere proximity effect, or stigma by association. This study found that a male job applicant was rated quite negatively when he was seen in a photo with an obese female, while this was not found to occur when he was seen in a photo with an average weight female. 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 actuality, it was the same woman in both photos; the only difference was that she was wearing an obese prosthesis in one of the photos. The results indicated that being merely proximally associated with an overweight or obese person can trigger stigmatisation towards that person, in this case, the job applicant. I have provided the reference below if anyone is interested in reading the article. This has been such an interesting topic to research, and it has really opened my eyes to the amount of obesity related stigma that exists in society.
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.