Rising obesity rates are a global issue, but often the focus is on the serious health issues that come with being dangerously overweight. Less studied are the impacts of public perception. In a new paper, The Affective and Interpersonal Consequences of Obesity,” Wharton operations and information management professor Maurice Schweitzer and Wharton doctoral candidate Emma E. Levine find that people who are obese are widely seen as less competent in a workplace setting than those who are of a normal weight. The paper is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

This bias against obesity exists even among those who are themselves overweight, and it could have wide-ranging implications for the opportunities available to people who have the condition. In this interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Schweitzer discusses the findings and also the surprising way that he and Levine say obese individuals can combat the bias. 

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below. 

The social costs of obesity: 

In the United States in the last 50 years, obesity [rates] have tripled. Currently, 68% of Americans are overweight and a full 30% of those people are obese. A lot of the prior research has looked at the health and economic consequences for our health care system. What have received much less attention are the interpersonal and social costs. My research looks at how people who are obese are discriminated against, and perceived differently within a workplace setting. People are discriminating in a way that we see obese people as less competent than non-obese people.

Key takeaways: 

One of the things we find is that this is a bias; that is, we can separate actual competence from perceived competence and we see that people judge obese people unfairly. 

The second thing we find is that these social perceptions are really labile. They can be changed as a function of things like how [personally] warm somebody is. So, whether or not somebody evokes sympathy or disgust is a function of how warm they’re perceived to be.

“We can separate actual competence from perceived competence and we see that people judge obese people unfairly.”–Maurice Schweitzer

Surprising conclusions: 

First, this bias is true for both men and for women who are heavy. Second, we found that even heavy people are biased against other people who are heavy. And third, we’re surprised at how important this idea of warmth is — that is, this idea about expressing your close relationships with your family, your friends, your pets. When people express warmth they’re judged to be much more sympathetic. They’re liked much better. And, in fact, these expressions of warmth could be even more important than actually losing weight in changing the way we’re perceived by others.

Demonstrating warmth: 

The two different implications of this work, I think, apply to people who are doing the judging— like managers who are hiring and promoting people— and to targets themselves. First, as a manager we want to think about ways in which we can judge other people in a way that is unbiased. That might mean changing the way we interview or promote people. Specifically here, I’m thinking about trying to make things as objective as possible — so, really judging people on the objective merits rather than some other holistic judgment that might be subject to bias.

The second set of implications is for people themselves — those targets. When we’re concerned about how we’re being judged by others, demonstrating warmth emerges as a really important thing. When we convey our warmth for our family, our friends, our co-workers — it really matters. And what we find is that it matters in particular for people who are obese and might be targets of discrimination otherwise.

The tipping point: 

In our research we looked at people in basically two categories. We focused our contrasts on people who were a normal size and people who were an obese size. By normal, we mean we looked at median statistics within the United States. For example, we looked at women who are 5’4” and either 132 pounds or 220 pounds. And for men we looked at people who are 5’9” and either 168 pounds or 243 pounds. Those heavier weights are classified as obese. 

What’s interesting is we found that these effects held for photos, which might be more intuitive. But they also held even if we just presented people with text. So, we showed people resume information, and all they could see were just numbers [for height and weight]. And they still had these visceral and emotional reactions to obesity.

“These expressions of warmth could be even more important than actually losing weight in changing the way we’re perceived by others.”–Maurice Schweitzer

Dispelling misperceptions: 

The biases we have against overweight people are different than the biases we have against other categories [of people]. For example, we know that there is discrimination based upon race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. The bias against overweight people, I think, is particularly pernicious because it is judged to be acceptable. It’s as if people think, “You chose to be overweight. You violated this Protestant ethic against gluttony and that was your choice.” And so, the sanctions we have against people who are obese tend to be more overt and more acceptable societally than other discrimination that we might see.

Combatting the bias: 

The first thing is to be aware that this is a potential bias — and to recognize that as we judge other people, we may judge obese people more harshly. What we find in our research is a very consistent bias perceiving obese people to be less competent. What’s interesting is that even when we disentangle actual competence from perceived competence we see a gap in judgment. It’s a bias. And I think the first thing we can do is recognize it. It is a potential bias when we’re judging other people.

And again, if we’re a manager, if we’re recruiting, if we’re promoting, we want to think about relying on the objective criteria as much as possible. And the way we’ve moved, for example, to try to make things more gender neutral as we do recruiting and promotion, we want to think about the same kinds of procedures for judging people based upon their size and weight.

For those of us that are a little bit heavier, we need to think about not just the health benefits, but now also the career and interpersonal benefits, of losing weight. And the importance of demonstrating warmth. That is, when other people perceive us, they’re going to be perceive us differently if we’re warm, if we have close relationships, if we’ve demonstrated concern and care for other people.

The Chris Christie effect: 

The most obvious story in the news that relates to this research, or the one that certainly hits me first, are stories about Chris Christie. When he wanted to run for President, there was a lot of news regarding his weight. And, in fact, I have a quote here from [a 2011 article by] Michael Kinsley of Bloomberg, where he says, “Look, I’m sorry but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be President. He is just too fat.” It goes on, but I think the idea [is] that we accept this kind of bias in a way that we wouldn’t if it was a racial, ethnic or other type of discrimination — but we see this to be far more acceptable when it has to do with weight.

Other groups who may be impacted: 

We root our work in a bias content model where we look at perceptions of other people based upon two dimensions — warmth and competence. And here we’re looking at people who are perceived to be low competence. And so, obesity, we find, is one trigger that signals perceptions of low competence. But there are others.

“The bias against overweight people, I think, is particularly pernicious because it is judged to be acceptable.”–Maurice Schweitzer

For example, there are groups like the elderly who are also perceived to be low in competence. What we find is that people who are perceived to be low competence could be discriminated against, but that social perception is really a labile, changeable construct. And when those people — let’s say the elderly — demonstrate warmth, they’re perceived much more sympathetically than when they’re perceived to be cold. 

What sets the research apart: 

Our research is the first to embed social perceptions of obesity within a broader theoretical framework. What this framework allows us to do is explore how perceptions can change. We developed testable predictions and tested those to show that things like warmth, for example, can shift in a predictable way the reactions that we get — both the perceptions and the behavior consequences that follow those perceptions.

What’s next: 

I’m very interested in how somebody’s appearance influences their inner personal perception and how it influences our social interactions. I focus on obesity because it’s such a growing and important problem in the United States and abroad. But I’m also interested in how other aspects of appearance, like physical attractiveness, influence our social perceptions.

With obesity in particular, I’m also interested in what happens, for example, after we lose weight. You can imagine somebody who loses weight both through a surgical operation or by diet and exercise — we might perceive people differently as a function of how they lost weight and if they lost weight.

So, I think there are a lot of questions going forward that we could fruitfully explore.