| Many Have Subconscious
Bias Against Obese
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
"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,"
The research was funded by the
SOURCE: Health Psychology 2003;22:68-78.
Reference Source 89