The Ugly Truth About Obesity

A victim of prejudice?

A victim of prejudice?

Obesity, defined as having a BMI over 30, is increasingly common these days. In America 30 percent of the population is obese while many other Western countries have similar figures (no pun intended). When obesity is debated it’s usually about health issues, but there is also another aspect to consider, namely that of obesity bias and discrimination.  According to Obesity Society, obese people are often viewed as “lazy, sloppy, less competent, lacking in self-discipline, disagreeable, less conscientious, and poor role models” as well as “unintelligent, unsuccessful, weak-willed, unpleasant, overindulgent”.

This negative view leads to discrimination in for instance employment and college admissions. In the medical setting, the negative attitude towards the obese may also lead to patients cancelling appointments, with worse health as a consequence. According to a study from Yale University, self-reported weight discrimination is as common as racial discrimination.  This may seem especially problematic since the obese are not protected by any minority laws so in many cases discrimination is perfectly legal.

On the other hand, what if all these negative stereotypes are accurate? After all, many stereotypes have some truth to them – Jews do make more money than others; Black people are more often involved in crime; there is plenty of research to show that East Asians are more introverted than other people. So why can’t stereotypes about the obese be accurate?

Like most things, this has been researched. Intelligence shows a very clear connection to IQ, as illustrated here. And since intelligence is linked to work performance this suggests that the obese may be unsuccessful and less competent as well. This in turn may explain the “wage penalty” that the obese suffer – like all groups with low intelligence do.

As for the personality traits mentioned above, Angelina Sutin and colleagues at the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services, have conducted perhaps the ultimate study on this, using some 2000 participants, spanning over 50 years and applying 14 500 measurements of weight. And they didn’t just content themselves with the Big Five personality factors but looked at all the subscales. They found that weight gain was most clearly related to Impulsiveness (a facet of Neuroticism), Warmth, Assertiveness, Positive Emotions (all facets of Extraversion), and a lack of Order and Self-Discipline (facets of Conscientiousness). It’s also interesting to note that while strongest predictor, Impulsiveness, as mentioned a facet of Neuroticism in the Big Five model, none of the other facets of this factor – Anxiety, Depression etc, related to overweight. So they common idea of the emotional overeater seems to lack empirical support.

So yes, the obese group is not unlike its negative stereotypes. Of the, “lazy”, “sloppy”, “less competent”, “lacking in self-discipline”, “disagreeable”, “less conscientious”, “poor role models”,” unintelligent”, “unsuccessful”, “weak-willed”, “unpleasant”, “overindulgent”, it seems “disagreeable” and “unpleasant” are the only clear misses.

This is not to hate on the obese, but to call a spade a spade. The idea that the problems of the obese are outside themselves is an unhealthy illusion here examplified by Slate Magazine’s Daniel Engber,

Stop hating. If we weren’t such unrepentant body bigots, fat people might earn more money, stay in school, and receive better medical care in hospitals and doctor’s offices. All that would go a long way toward mitigating the health effects of excess weight—and its putative costs

This under the false assumption that fat people have the same intelligence and Self-Discipline and that the reason they cancel appointments is not due to Impulsiveness and lack of Conscientiousness but only because of other peoples prejudice. In doing so, he enables fat people to stay fat and to blame society for their problems, and to, like the Obesity Society, view the condition as unrelated to willpower.

The harsh truth is that the obese are in a lot of trouble. They are less attractive in the workplace because of their combination of intelligence (or lack thereof) and personality. Work performance is best predicted by IQ scores and next best of Conscientiousness. Impulsive behavior on the other hand predicts crime and accidents. Most employers are probably not aware of the research linking obese people to these characteristics and outcomes, but they know from experience that employing an obese person is a financial risk with no apparent reward.

They should of course look at the individual, but not everyone can afford testing every potential employee. Nor can a doctor test his patients. But he can use his experience, which tells him that the obese person is much less likely to follow his professional advice. And even if they could check every individual it wouldn’t solve the problem because the reason the group has these characteristics is because so many individuals belonging to the group have them.

So, is there any way to help this group? My guess is that the best solution would be to introduce vice taxes and similar paternalistic measures. You can’t leave someone who is out of control to their own devices. The worst solution is the one used right now – blaming negative stereotypes and discrimination, when scientific research validates those exact stereotypes as well as provides perfectly rational reasons for discrimination.


27 Responses to The Ugly Truth About Obesity

  1. JayMan says:

    I said as much on an article reporting this.

    That said, I think you’re going much too far. The correlation between obesity and IQ is fairly low (less than 0.2), so there are plenty of obese highly intelligent people. Indeed it’s very bad policy to recommend that people discriminate based on weight, as it is a fairly poor predictor of intelligence, and according to the study you mentioned, a fairly poor predictor of personality. There is certainly statistical truth to the stereotypes, but just that, hardly enough to eschew judging individuals on their own merits.

    As for what to do about obesity, I don’t think there is anything you can do. The factors “feeding” the problem, so to speak, likely can’t simply be remedied by taxes. Most people evolved under Malthusian conditions, and they may be simply predisposed to store fat whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    As well, if the paleo crowd is correct, and excessive grain (and junk food derived from those grains) is the problem, that’s an impossible nut to crack for the foreseeable future; grains supply the bulk of the food for modern peoples – there simply isn’t enough fruit and meat to feed the masses, nor can there be. Obesity’s connection to health is apparently overrated, so it may just be that obesity is something we need to live with – a serenity moment.

  2. Staffan says:

    I’d discriminate if that was my only info, but if I had test results or other merits I’d weigh that in as well. But it’s hard for a doctor to have his patients do IQ and personality tests to get an idea of whether they will follow his advice or not.

    While 0.2 sounds low it’s a big sample size so it’s still robust, and when combined with the most problematic combination of personality traits then I think the total effect will be pretty substantial. But admittedly I’m speculating here. After all, this is the general profile of a criminal or someone with ADHD.

    Although it might be that a lot of this discrimination isn’t about obesity as such, but an informal assessment of character. Most people can spot a problematic person and their obesity may be just one piece of the puzzle.

  3. Staffan says:

    Also, I’ve been mulling the idea that “there are plenty of obese highly intelligent people”. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s really the case. If you look at middle class residential areas around Stockholm, obesity is virtually nonexistent. And there are over 800 Nobel laureates. If there was a clear overlap, as you suggest, there should be maybe one percent obese people in that group. I’m not sure there is even a single one. And how about other prominent intellectualls who we can safely say they are highly intelligent? I find it very hard to come up with any names at all. (I’m assuming that people like Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh don’t fall into this category.)

    • JayMan says:

      It could be rare among people with extremely high IQs. Cities aren’t exactly a good gauge because they select against overweight people.

      But, there is another factor along with intelligence that factors into success: energy. Fatter people tend to have less energy (almost by necessity, since their bodies are programmed to store food rather than burn it), so it may inhibit their advancement.

      The issue of doctors is a far more complex one. As we seen, IQ is a much better predictor of mortality than obesity, or most any other factor is. Many doctors like to “inflate” their outcomes by avoiding sicker patients. It would be more effective to discriminate by IQ if that were their goal, but then, low-IQ people need doctors too, so…

      Bottom line, using obesity as some sort of discriminant is generally not wise.

      • Luke Lea says:

        I believe David Hume was a fat man. Benjamin Franklin maybe. Samuel Johnson I think. Henry James was pretty fat. Jews are frequently overweight aren’t they? Somehow I get the idea that Wolfgang Pauli was fat but I may be wrong about that. John von Neumann was reportedly fat. In James Watson’s ‘The Double Helix’ you will find a mention of Josia Lederberg, a pioneer molecular biologist who was on track for expanding to fill the Universe. [I stole that last sentence from somebody else.] etc.

  4. Matt says:

    One interesting issue with overweight is that underweight people are also associated with personality problems (mental inflexibility, neuroticism, etc.)

    If you have a situation where some x factor causes BMI and fat storage to rise across society (rather than exclusively in the top 50% of BMI), then you might eventually develop a situation where the normal weight people tended to have the mental problems underweight folk have, while the overweight (but probably not obese) people were psychologically normal.

    I wonder if this is the case if we compare, say, the USA and Sweden, that overweight folk in the USA tend to have more normal personalities than Sweden, while normal weight folk in the USA tend to have more underweight related personality problems (just as underweight folk in poor countries probably don’t tend to have personality problems, but have more normal personalities).

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, underweight is related to anorexia, perfectionism and most likely social status – it is pretty rare in the working class and in America among the Black population.

      There may be a national difference too. It seems like being overweight is common in most demographics in the US. Once a behavior is common enough it becomes accepted and even copied by others. And vice versa – if you have a BMI over 30 in a regular middle class area here you’ll be “that fat guy”. So people will make an effort not to be that person.

      But looking at the extreme ends I still think you’ll find poor impulse control to be a common factor (the study I mentioned is American). People with ADHD are big here too, and their core feature is impulsivity.

  5. […] The Ugly Truth About Obesity – “So yes, the obese group is not unlike its negative stereotypes. Of the, ‘lazy’, ‘sloppy’, ‘less competent’, ‘lacking in self-discipline’, ‘disagreeable’, ‘less conscientious’, ‘poor role models’, ‘unintelligent’, ‘unsuccessful’, ‘weak-willed’, ‘unpleasant’, ‘overindulgent’, it seems ‘disagreeable’ and ‘unpleasant’ are the only clear misses. This is not to hate on the obese, but to call a spade a spade.” – from staffan! […]

  6. Staffan says:

    “I believe David Hume was a fat man. Benjamin Franklin maybe. Samuel Johnson I think. Henry James was pretty fat. Jews are frequently overweight aren’t they? Somehow I get the idea that Wolfgang Pauli was fat but I may be wrong about that. John von Neumann was reportedly fat. In James Watson’s ‘The Double Helix’ you will find a mention of Josia Lederberg, a pioneer molecular biologist who was on track for expanding to fill the Universe. [I stole that last sentence from somebody else.] etc.”

    In the 1700s few were aware of the health problems linked to obesity, (although it seems Voltaire was and he dieted).

    There are some heavy laureates but they don’t look clearly obese to me. And they are all fairly old, which is a factor in obesity as well. Keep in mind that I’m talking about a BMI of 30 or more, which is pretty conspicuous.

    Perhaps Jews gain weight more easily than others, even smart ones. Pauli may be obese but Lederberg doesn’t look it. But within the group this relation seems to hold, one study claims that only some 14 percent of Jewish Israeli women are obese whereas the overall average is similar to that of America.

    And internationally, most high-IQ nations like Japan, China, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands etc, have very low obesity rates.

    Maybe the GSS has data on this; I haven’t figured out how it works yet.

  7. Anthony says:

    One hypothesis for the recent increase in obesity rates is that as food has gotten cheaper and cheaper, it’s easier for people to afford to become obese. (Megan McArdle pointed out that food is something like 10% of the average American’s spending now, but was closer to 30% in the 1950s, when people ate out a lot less.)

    Something to test – probably from publicly available data: What is the rate of obesity among U.S. whites vs native-born Europeans? Especially poorer European countries? Possible confounds: White Americans are still primarily northwest European, and separating out data for Italian-Americans, for example, may be hard. Some poorer European countries were Communist for a long time, and so a lot of the population was skating along the edge of malnutrition for a long time.

  8. Staffan says:

    Access is no doubt a factor. Still, this study is American so personality is nevertheless important, impulsivity being the strongest determinant. Like Eric Schlosser pointed out in his book Fast Food Nation, some 70 percent of McDonald’s customers are impulse buyers.

    You can find some stats on this over at Jayman’s blog. He has written extensively on this topic:

    A tidbit from that post: White American BMI is at 26.8. This is more than most Europeans, rich or poor. But their closest relatives, UK and Germany actually have slightly higher BMIs, 27.8 and 27.1 respectively.

    The stats on obesity are a bit different. According to NationMaster obesity is fairly low in Germany but on the American level in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This may be a matter of impulsivity.

  9. […] Staffan’s Personality Blog: “The Ugly Truth About Obesity“ […]

  10. […] hunger. You don’t bend over and make it easier for the fatass-rammers, especially not when the facts support your contention that fat craps really do have problems with […]

  11. […] there are fewer obese people in the upper reaches of society in general, and in academia. Blogger Staffan has recently made a post complementing my own that gets at why this is. Obesity is correlated with impulsiveness, so, in […]

  12. I’m obese. IQ 150-170. That’s just one data point, but as you seem to be operating from a “gee I haven’t seen any” mode, that seems fair.

    However, there may still be something to your theory. I don’t have a PhD or academic accomplishments, just a string of single episode victories in tests, contests and such, requiring short-term intense intellectual effort. I have been able to play the longer game in other areas – I am the father of five grown boys – but haven’t shown especial self-discipline.

    I am favoring the Taubes grain/starch/concentrated sugar hypothesis at present. Fits me exactly. I never ate too much fatty food, gorged on sweets, or had much alcohol, (mild intemperance on all, but not much) but I slowly gained throughout my life. I did eat a lot of all the starches, however – bread, potatoes, corn, rice.

    Food pyramid kills.

    • Staffan says:

      Well, there is bound to be a few exceptions, although I find the lack of obesity among prominent intellectuals conspicous. Luke had to go back to the 1700s to find clearly obese examples.

      Looking at Kanazawa’s study, the risk of obesity for people with childhood intelligence above 125 is 13.5 percent. With an average IQ that figure almost doubles to 25.8 percent.

      But like I said in an earlier comment, it may also depend on the population. Obesity among ethnic Swedes is very uncommon so being obese in that population means you’re “that fat guy” in the neighborhood (and Swedes really like to fit in). This is probably not as pronounced in America.

      It would have been interesting if Sutin had included IQ in the study. My guess is that a combination of intelligence and personality is the most powerful predictor of obesity.

      As for diet, it’s probably depending on the person since there seems to be individual differences in just about everything. Me, I get ill if I don’t get dairy products and my body doesn’t seem to digest rice very well.

    • Staffan says:

      I still seem to have some problem commenting on your blog btw. I’ve added it to cookie exceptions but nothing.

    • JayMan says:

      It’s worth noting that lab animals in the U.S. (whose diet and lifestyle are strictly controlled) have been getting fat too. As Taubes himself notes, we really don’t know what causes obesity. All we have are a variety of hypothesis that are currently impossible to put to conclusive tests.

      • Staffan says:

        It’s odd about the lab animals, although this study shows on some obvious reasons for obesity – people who act on impulse will indulge themselves and people with self-discipline will not. Intelligence plays a similar role no doubt. There is also an environmental factor of increased availability – the cheaper the food, the more likely someone will buy and eat it. I can’t see any mystery here.

        But if Allison can show that animals in captivity will simply gain weight on a fixed diet then I’d be willing to rethink. Right now I think this could be researchers or other people working in the lab coming into contact with the animals and giving them a little treat now and then even though they shouldn’t. Or maybe the keep the animals longer these days so their average age has increased.

      • JayMan says:


        “It’s odd about the lab animals, although this study shows on some obvious reasons for obesity – people who act on impulse will indulge themselves and people with self-discipline will not. Intelligence plays a similar role no doubt. There is also an environmental factor of increased availability – the cheaper the food, the more likely someone will buy and eat it. I can’t see any mystery here. “

        That sounds like a sensible explanation, but at the end of the day, we have no way to know for sure, because we lack the means of performing definitive tests. The existence of other hypotheses further casts doubt on that being the explanation.

        The lab animal situation, which presents the conditions where we would have definitive answers, adds further doubt.

        This is a very much open field of study. It’s not wise to jump to final conclusions based on sub-standard evidence; that’s how the glaring errors that permeate the field became so widespread.

  13. Staffan says:

    I’m not jumping to some final conclusion. But it’s a competition between theories that can best explain the data. I can’t find a better theory to explain the individual differences in overweight and obesity. I don’t think this research is substandard either; it spans over 50 years and entails over 14 thousand measurements.

    Also, I’m not saying it’s the only explanation. If it was then it would hold on an individual level and clearly there are individuals who are impulsive and skinny and vice versa.

    But we are also talking about two separate issues here – individual differences and the overall weight gain in recent decades. While availability could answer the latter, I can’t say I’ve read any research on it. There is such research in Sweden regarding alcohol consumption but food consumption is clearly different in many ways.

  14. John Lee says:


    Your article on obesity is the greatest load of horseshit I have read in some time. Your ignorance and misunderstanding of obesity is unbelievable. The premise that obesity is related to the personality has no basis in scientific research. We have been led to believe in the calories-in/calories out paradigm fo so long now that we fail to even think about it. Of course it’s true that when more calories go in and less are expended then weight increases but this is merely an observation of obvious fact not an explanation of cause. In trying to explain the phenomenon of obesity under this paradigm we blame the obese and believe them to be ignorant, lazy greedy etc. and we totally ignore the biology/physiology of the condition. To get a different view, one that is supported by scientific research consider this statement “Obese people eat to excess and are sedentary BECAUSE they are fattening”. This is the true nature of the problem and until the health authorities and commentators accept the science we will go nowhere in solving it. The drive to eat more and expend less energy comes from the fattening process (the cause) which results in imbalances in the hormone driven fat regulation system. And there is a simple solution to this if you’re interested. Google the name “William Banting” and you will find a simple therapy thatwas indentified 150 years ago. Or remain in your state of ignorance and continue to describe obese people, who are suffering from a medical condition, as lazy, sloppy etc. The choice is yours.

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks for your input.

      But you’re wrong when you claim that the connection between obesity and personality isn’t based on scientific research. I present such research in this article. You’re free to criticize it but there is no way around the fact that it exists. Just click the link.

  15. John Lee says:

    I guess in response I would have to say that if a person has been labelled in such negative ways for most of their lives they will inevitably become to believe that society is correct in their assessments and have low self esteem, be less likely to fully participate in education and other social activities not to mention the inherent bias of IQ tests which favour the richer sections of society who are less likely to be obese anyway as obesity is the handmaiden of poverty. Remember they are battling a biological disorder and have been given tools (eat less, exercise more) which do not work no matter how hard they try. There was a time when I would have read your article and taken it at face value but knowing the real causes of obesity makes me question the conclusions notwithstanding their research credentials.

    • Staffan says:

      It’s possible that obesity is partly the cause of their personality but since these traits give a perfectly good reason why someone would become obese it seems like cause and effect go in the other direction. Urges and the impulsive behavior that comes with it typically stem from low dopamine and taking a stimulant that boosts dopamine levels will typically make weight go down.

      As for IQ tests, there is no other measure that predicts level of education or work performance. It correlates 0.4 to brain volume and has a heritability around 0.75-0.80. Again, I think you’re confounding cause and effect. Poor people are obese because they act on impulse and reflect less than rich people. That’s how class and weight differences are caused by differences in intelligence and personality. If it was the other way around you’d see much lower heritabilities on these measures.

      “There was a time when I would have read your article and taken it at face value but knowing the real causes of obesity makes me question the conclusions notwithstanding their research credentials.”

      Don’t take it at face value. You have Sutin’s full article in the link. Read it through and ask yourself how it can be reconciled with your view. I don’t think it can. And that study is about as good as it gets.

  16. Secular Vegan says:

    I recommend reading Greg Critser’s book ‘Fat Land’:

    and see whether you agree with any of his hypotheses.

    • Staffan says:

      Access is certainly a necessary condition, but that doesn’t take away from the heritability and more specifically the personality traits linked to it. There is always a person making a choice, and people make different choices.

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