The Ugly Truth About Obesity

May 30, 2013
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.

 

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