Thursday, 24 September 2009

Anticipating an interaction with an obese person provokes feelings of social power

Humans are obsessed with status. Beneath every social interaction, there's an implicit power play. This is made stark by a North American study showing that the anticipation of a conversation with an obese person provokes in normal-weight people feelings of increased power and dominance, presumably because of the stigmatised status of obese people in the United States.

Olivier Klein and colleagues invited 77 normal-weight student participants to the psychology lab on the premise that they were to be observed having a introductory conversation with another student. The participants were shown a photo of the person they would be meeting and asked to provide some auto-biographical information before the meeting took place. Crucially, half the participants were shown a photo of an obese student, whereas the other participants were shown a picture of a normal-weight student.

The key finding was that participants expecting to have a conversation with an obese student were much quicker to indicate that words like "powerful", "strong" and "dominant" matched their self-concept than were participants expecting to have a conversation with a normal-weight student. This effect was specific to power-related concepts. There was no difference for socially positive concepts like "friendly" or "outgoing".

Moreover, participants expecting to chat to an overweight student reported feeling more socially powerful as revealed by their agreement with statements like "I could make the interaction more enjoyable for my partner" and "I expect that my partner will like me more than I like him". Finally, participants waiting to talk to an overweight partner also tended to rate their partner more negatively, and were more likely to say that obesity is due to lack of willpower.

"Participants' feeling of empowerment when interacting with an obese person may be based on the activation of obese people's status in American society today," the researchers said. "The perception of this lower status may have been used as a 'cue' triggering a perception of empowerment by the perceiver."

ResearchBlogging.orgKlein, O., Snyder, M., & Gonzalez, R. (2009). Stigma and Social Power: Expecting to Interact with an Obese Person Activates Power in the Self-concept. Self and Identity, 8 (4), 378-395 DOI: 10.1080/15298860802391413

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Tim said...

I don't know about this one. How can we be sure that this is not based simply on the size of the other person, rather than the specific trait of obesity?

I wonder what would happen if the participants were shown a photo of a large muscular person. Is it an actual feeling of power, or more a need *to display* power due to the size differential?

Anonymous said...

You gotta be kidding me. There's no way a person would feel empowered anticipating a meeting with a musucular student. I guess you're trying to be correct and all, but don't go overboard.

I see no reason to look for holes in the theory, it's a very common assumption that obese people lack willpower, and what follows is that they make others feel more confident about their own status.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you're right up to a point. The word "obese" is an ugly, derogatory word, I don't care who uses it. These days, it's EVERYBODY. And what does one mean by the word? Oh, yeah. There are DEGREES of "obese." There's "obese" and there's "morbidly obese." How'd you like to be called that? Anybody who didn't have to be called names like that several times in the past couple minutes, by several people, would naturally feel superior to anyone who did. Maybe the "stigma" would be considerably lessened if we got out the old thesaurus and found better things to call it. There are better things. And by the way, what's "normal?"

Tim said...

I didn't stay that they would feel empowered...I said that they may feel a *need* to feel power. Going back to some of the more primal instincts of humans, they may be thinking (whether it's conscious or not), "this person is bigger than me, and therefore a threat, so I need to puff my chest."

Anyway, I'm not so much looking for holes in their theory, than just pointing out potential holes in the methodology.

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