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Monday, January 27, 2014

To stigmatize or not to stigmatize obesity

There’s no doubt that obesity is a problem in the U.S. But what’s the best way to stop the epidemic of excessive weight gain? Perhaps it would be helpful to stigmatize obesity by discriminating against the overweight and by publicly pointing out their short failings. If you think that, you’re in for a ruder awakening than the people this method was tried on. Negative talk about overeating makes women who perceive themselves as overweight less able to control their eating.
Researchers led by Brenda Major from the University of California, Santa Barbara recruited 93 female students, 49 of whom rated themselves as overweight. Among the 91 women who consented to be measured, 32 had BMI’s indicating that they were in fact overweight.
The participants were asked not to eat for two hours prior to the study. They didn’t know the study had anything to do with food or weight, instead they were told the study was about physiological responses and communication. Let that be a lesson to anyone participating in a  sociology or psychology study. It’s never about what they say it’s about.
The subjects were asked to read an, unbeknownst to them, fake New York Times article. After reading the article, they gave a videotaped five minute presentation, discussing the article and explaining its implications. Half the people got an article called “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job”, the other half were given the nearly identical article “Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job”. Once they were done with their presentations, it was break time in a room conveniently equipped with bowls of pre-measured snacks.
As you can see from the following chart, women who were forced to discuss the pitfalls of smoking (control) were able to moderate their eating behavior depending on how overweight they perceived themselves to be. That is, the more overweight women felt they were, the less they ate. In contrast, the women who had been subjected to negative weight information ate more snacks if they felt they were overweight.
Full-size image (13 K)
Control = smoking article
WS Treat = weight article
DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.009.
The most likely explanation is that brain power is a limited resource. We only have so much attention and energy for any task. When we’re subjected to one kind of stress, such as feeling judged, we have less energy available to fight impulses. One clue that this is what’s going on here is that perceived weight affected the women’s behavior much more than objective weight, as measured by BMI.
All this goes to show that shaming people for behaviors we’d like to discourage is counterproductive. I hope no one is surprised by that.

Brenda Major, Jeffrey M. Hunger, Debra P. Bunyan, & Carol T. Miller (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 74-80 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.009.