Research that Changed Research: Anti-Fat Bias Among Obesity Specialists

In honor of the fact that Dr. T, Angela, and Laura traveled to  Atlanta last week to attend the Obesity Society’s Annual meeting at Obesity Week 2013, today’s article covers a study performed there over a decade ago.

Weight bias and discrimination has been found in many professional settings, especially with regards to employment, salary, and promotion decisions. However, the prevalence of weight bias among health professionals in medical care institutions is a growing concern.  If weight bias exists in health professionals, then is the increase in obesity-related health problems associated with the reluctance of obese patients to seek health care and poor treatment adherence and outcomes?

Back in 2000, Dr. Marlene B. Schwartz and Dr. Kelly Brownell and their colleagues administered the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) and a self-report questionnaire of explicit attitudes to 389 clinicians and researchers who were present at the international obesity conference in 2001. Research has confirmed that the IAT is a valid measure to predict prejudice behaviors towards a particular group.  This word classification task is a timed procedure where subjects are given a list of words and asked to sort them into a good or bad category. In this situation, the subjects were given words that corresponded to thin or fat people (See Figure 1 below). Participants then completed measures of explicit bias, indicating how positively or negatively they felt in general toward overweight and thin people respectively.

Figure 1

The results indicated that the obesity specialists in study exhibited a significant implicit anti-fat bias. The passage below is from the original article:

“Health professionals exhibited a significant pro thin, anti-fat implicit bias on the IAT. In addition, the subjects significantly endorsed the implicit stereotypes of lazy, stupid, and worthless using the IAT…Characteristics significantly predictive of lower levels of implicit anti-fat bias include being male, older, having positive emotional outlook on life, weighing more, having friends who are obese, and indicating an understanding of the experience of obesity.”

So what brought the DiSH Lab to Obesity Week? We wanted to find out whether how the prevalence has changed over the past ten years since the original iteration of this study using the exact same procedure among the same population of individuals. Is weight bias among obesity specialists increasing, or is this one domain where weight stigma may not be flourishing? Stay tuned for results of our 10-year follow-up study.