Nearly all prejudicial attitudes are now taboo in America. Sixty years ago, it might have been acceptable to deny someone a job or service in a business because of skin color or gender, but now such overt discrimination is almost universally condemned. Even people with disabilities are accommodated. Yet although obesity is on the rise in America, overweight people continue to face difficulty. They are rated lower on job performance evaluations even when the work they do is qualitatively the same as normal weight individuals.
Why does such discrimination continue even as overt discrimination is on the decline? “Justification-suppression” is an impressive model of the cognitive mechanism behind prejudice. The idea is that individuals may hold prejudicial attitudes, but whether these attitudes are actually expressed in behavior depends on whether they are justified or suppressed. Under this model, discrimination against obese people is seen as justified because obesity is perceived as something an individual brings on himself. The model also explains implicit biases, because these are simply biases which are successfully suppressed or are never justified.
If the justification-suppression model is valid, then decreasing the justification for discrimination should decrease the incidence. A team led by Eden King and Jenessa Shapiro designed an intriguing study to see if they could manipulate discriminatory behavior towards obese individuals. They recruited ten women to pose as shoppers at a Houston-area shopping mall. Each shopper visited 16 different stores, wearing one of four different outfits. Two of the outfits involved prostheses designed to make the women appear to be obese. No changes were made to the women’s face or hair styles, however. Below the fold is a set of photos of one of the shoppers in each of her outfits:
As you can see, one of the outfits was casual — a sweater and jeans — while the other was professional — a suit (though I think Clinton and Stacy might have something to say about the cut of those jackets … yikes!). Each came in an average-weight and obese (about size 22) version. A panel of 125 volunteers looked at photos of each of the shoppers in their obese outfits and none of them indicated any suspicion that the shoppers were wearing prostheses to make them look overweight. Each shopper was accompanied by an observer who entered the store before her and monitored her interactions with the salesperson. The shoppers recorded their conversation with the salespeople, which followed a script indicating they were buying a present for their sister. Afterward, the tape recordings were analyzed, and both the observers and the shoppers rated their interactions with the salespeople for factors which indicated either overt or interpersonal discrimination (things like not smiling, rudeness, and prematurely ending the interaction).
While no overt discrimination was found (and none would be expected — the salespeople clearly wanted to make a sale, no matter the customers’ weight), an analysis of the recordings and the shopper ratings indicated that the obese shoppers were treated worse than the average-weight shoppers. What’s more, the entire difference can be accounted for by worse treatment of the casually dressed obese shoppers:
King et al. argue that these results support the justification-suppression model: The salespeople had a bias against obese people. In the case of the professionally dressed shoppers, they felt that the obese shoppers were attempting to compensate for their weight by dressing better, so the salespeople supressed the expression of their bias. In the case of the casually dressed shoppers, salespeople may have felt that the obese shoppers had “let themselves go,” and so justified the expression of their biases.
However, the researchers point out that this analysis calls for an awful lot of conjecture. Perhaps salespeople aren’t analyzing the shoppers’ desire to control their obesity. While the analysis makes sense, we can’t know for certain, since the salespeople weren’t asked.
So King and Shapiro’s team designed a second experiment designed to test this proposed mechanism more directly. They used the same protocol in a new shopping mall — shoppers wearing obesity prostheses or regular clothing — but this time all the outfits were the same. What was changed in this experiment was the script. Half the time shoppers carried a Diet Coke, and the other half the time they had a Dairy Queen Blizzard (an ice cream treat). The shoppers carrying Diet Cokes called attention to their drink with the following script:
This Diet Coke is so good! I hope you don’t mind me drinking it in here. I am on a diet. I just did a half-marathon with my friends. Good gosh, it felt great. Anyway, back to your suggestions.
The shoppers with Blizzards used this script:
This Dairy Queen Blizzard is so good! I hope you don’t mind me drinking it in here. Thank goodness I am not on a diet. I have these friends who just did a half-marathon. Good gosh, I could never do that. Anyway, back to your suggestions.
Take a look at the results:
The results are almost indistinguishable from the first experiment. Obese people who were seen as making an effort to lose weight were treated equally to average weight people, but obese people who were not, were treated worse. So now we have two independent confirmations of the justification-suppression model in action — one where discrimination appears to be justified in the mind of the salesperson on the basis of clothing choice, and one where discrimination seems justified because of unhealthy food and exercise choices.
King et al. are careful not to argue that obese people should therefore spend all their time trying to convince people that they are attemting to lose weight, but they do make a strong case that obesity discrimination is activated when people believe that obese people are responsible for their own condition. They also point out that businesses could be losing money by allowing their sales staff to treat customers differently. In a separate survey, they found that overweight customers did feel they were treated worse than average weight customers in a variety of stores, and that customers who were treated worse were less likely to return to the store.
King, E.B., Shapiro, J.R., Hebl, M.R., Singletary, S.L., & Turner, S. (2006). The stigma of obesity in customer service: A mechanism for remediation and bottom-line consequences of interpersonal discrimination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(3), 579-593.