Regardless of their credentials, overweight individuals are often perceived as being less competent, according to new research on weight bias at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
The researchers say that this negative bias may be based on the notion that obese individuals are lazy or lack self-control — leading others to unfairly associate being overweight with low competence.
One particular personality trait, however, seems to completely counter this negative bias: having a particularly warm personality. Signaling warmth can reverse the stigma associated with low competence, say the researchers.
For the first study, two hundred participants were asked to predict the winning Jeopardy! contestant from 10 different shows based on photographs of the three true contestants. After participants chose the winner of each game, they rated each of the contestants on their perceived competence. Participants were offered a small cash prize for each correct guess.
Two trained raters then assessed the body weight and physical attractiveness for each Jeopardy! contestant using a previously validated nine point Body Mass Index (BMI) scale. This provided a standardized measure so that attractiveness and weight could be assessed and controlled for separately.
Although there was no relationship between a contestant’s weight and their actual performance on the game, study participants showed a significant bias against contestants based on their weight: As contestant weight increased, perceived competence decreased.
“Organizational research on stereotypes and diversity has been surprisingly silent with respect to weight,” write psychological scientists Emma Levine and Maurice Schweitzer.
“We demonstrate that obesity is intricately linked with perceptions of low competence and that this association not only reflects a bias, but also triggers interpersonal reactions that are far more nuanced than prior work has assumed.”
“We demonstrate that the association between obesity and low competence is unjustified. Individuals expect obese targets to perform poorly in competitive settings, but we find no relationship between weight and actual performance,” writes Levine and Schweitzer. “In other words, we document the existence of a bias.”
In a separate study, the researchers asked participants to evaluate the competence of potential job candidates and, again, a candidate’s weight seemed to impact how he or she was viewed. The researchers found that both men and women showed this weight bias, and even participants who were overweight themselves consistently showed a bias against obese job applicants.
The findings do suggest, however, that one trait seems to completely counter this negative bias: coming across as particularly warm. When an overweight job candidate’s resume included information showing them to be warm and friendly, the competence bias disappeared. As perceptions of warmth increased, so did perceptions of obese applicants’ competence.
“We document substantial benefits from displays of warmth. We find that signaling warmth can curtail stigma associated with low competence, and that this may be more effective for shifting interpersonal perceptions than actually losing weight,” the researchers write.
However, the researchers warn of the drawbacks of using warmth to negate social stigma: Displaying warmth may signal that a stigmatized group is satisfied or happy with their treatment, and this may discourage others from taking steps to overcome bias.