Honesty Box

Implicit Weight Bias Grows, Despite Polite Appearances

Talk is cheap. And a new study in Psychological Science tells us that when it comes to talk about weight bias, we’re making slow progress. Explicit bias is down a bit over the last decade. But when it comes to action, this same study shows that implicit weight bias is growing, not shrinking. This new data comes from 4.4 million tests on Harvard’s Project Implicit website.

A Stark Contrast with Racial and Sexual Orientation Bias

Lead author Tessa Charlesworth explained the importance of this research:

We provide the first report of long-term change in both implicit and explicit attitudes – measured from the same individual – towards multiple social groups. This research is important because it shows that, contrary to previous assumptions that implicit attitudes were stable features of the mind or society, implicit attitudes appear, in fact, to be capable of long-term durable change.

They found that explicit bias went down between 2007 and 2016 for all the dimensions they studied. This included race, sexual orientation, skin tone, age, disabilities, and weight. The fastest drop came for explicit bias against gay and lesbian individuals. They saw a reduction of 49 percent. However, the slowest decline was the decline in weight bias – only 15 percent.

Their data on implicit bias presents a very different story. Implicit bias based on sexual orientation, race, and skin tone came down. For age and disabilities, it neither rose nor fell. But implicit weight bias went up – from 75 to 81 percent of respondents showing a bias against heavier people.

Awareness Is Not Enough

We can view this as a bit of good news nixed with a bit of bad news. The fact that explicit attitudes are moving in the right direction is definitely good news. Even if the progress is slow. It’s less acceptable today to explicitly shame people with obesity than it was ten years ago.

Changing the conversation is good, but it’s definitely not enough. Implicit assumptions that heavier people are less worthy are critically important. Those biases make it OK to rationalize discriminatory practices in education, employment, and healthcare.

That’s not OK. We have work to do.

Click here for the study, here for more from the Association for Psychological Science, and here for a report from WBUR in Boston. For a view from Rebecca Puhl on the way forward, click here.

Honesty Box, photograph © Michael Coghlan / flickr

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January 13, 2019

One Response to “Implicit Weight Bias Grows, Despite Polite Appearances”

  1. January 13, 2019 at 1:18 pm, Anahit said:

    It’s very important for doctors and their patients.