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Effects of Characterising ‘Obesity as a Disease’ on Weight Bias

This study sought to work out the implications of categorising obesity as a disease on weight bias. A sample of 309 participants were recruited and measures of demographics, ideology, general attitudes and previous contact with people living with obesity were taken. Participants then read one of three articles as part of an experimental manipulation, one framing obesity as a disease, one framing it not as a disease and a control article on an unrelated topic. After reading, the participants were reassessed for measures including disgust, empathy, blame and weight bias.

The ‘obesity is a disease’ manipulation had a direct positive effect on the emotional response of the participants towards individuals with obesity, because of a reduction in blameworthiness and controllability. However, this was complicated due to a heightening of essentialism; by perceiving obesity as an inherent component of the individual,  the individual becomes bad because obesity is bad. This means that framing obesity as a disease which is out of the control of the individual, is not without its consequences to weight stigma.

Another interesting finding was that those participants that had a strong ‘just-world’ beliefs, defined as those that think that people get what they deserve, and thus readily attribute blame to others misfortune in order maintain that belief. This subgroup were most susceptible to a change in emotion when given the article on ‘obesity is a disease’. This suggests that prejudice reduction strategies may need to be more specific and targeted, depending on the group that one is seeking to influence.

This study highlights the nuanced approach that must be taken when trying to implement a stigma reduction programme. Characterising obesity as a disease does not straightforwardly reduce stigma. It also highlights the importance of understanding the target audience when conducting a stigma reduction programme, as a huge number of personal variables, such as political and philosophical views, affects how they react to the information, and these must be taken into account  in order to make the programme effective.

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