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Implicit Weight Bias on the Rise – and My Own Results

June 16, 2019

I don’t like to think of myself as being biased. I imagine most people don’t. And yet when I took a recent test on the Harvard Project Implicit website, about weight bias, I found out I had a slight automatic preference for thin people.

 

In reality, this shouldn’t be surprising, especially when you consider that between 2007 and 2016, implicit weight bias increased by 6%?

 

Surprising or not, the test did what it was supposed to do. It got me thinking more about bias, in myself and others.

 

What is implicit weight bias?

Implicit bias is when you have automatic thoughts and feelings about something without being truly aware of it. 

 

If asked, you might say you’re not biased, but you could still act on it unintentionally. This goes both ways, since you can have a bias for or against something.

 

Implicit weight bias is therefore unacknowledged thoughts and feelings about someone based on their weight. In this case, having positive feelings towards thin people and negative feelings towards fat people. 

 

Explicit bias, on the other hand, is when you have conscious beliefs or attitudes about a person or group. 

 

What’s interesting is that explicit weight bias has actually decreased. Normally that would be encouraging, but not when you add in that implicit weight bias is on the rise. Especially since other types of implicit bias, such as race and sexual orientation, are down. 

 

Plus, explicit weight bias is only down 15%, which was less of a decrease than any other bias. In contrast, explicit bias based on sexual orientation went down 49%.

 

Testing my own weight bias

To find out where I fell in this, I went to the Project Implicit Website, agreed to the terms, and chose the Weight IAT. (IAT = Implicit Association Test)

 

When I took it, I had no idea what to expect, which might be the best way to do it. But I’m going to give a few details, so if you want to pause and take it now for yourself, feel free. It doesn’t take long.

 

It starts with seeing silhouettes of people in different poses – some thin, some fat. (Note that I couldn't find any free images of fat people in silhouette.)

The test also defined what were considered good words and bad words. For example, good words were things like love and beautiful, while bad words included hate and nasty. 

 

I answered a few questions about how I respond to people based on size, but then it got really interesting. 

 

By using specified keys on my keyboard, I had to identify what came up on the screen. For example, I might be asked to press “E” when I saw a good word, and press “I” when I saw a bad word. Similarly, I pressed different letters when I saw the silhouettes of thin or fat people.

 

Then the test pairs the words with the images. So you’d press “E” for fat people and for good words, and “I” for thin people and bad words. Then those are reversed.

 

The test measures how quickly you’re able to respond to the prompts, and if there’s any difference in time based on how the words and images are paired.

 

And it was fascinating to notice even when taking the test how my perception shifted slightly. If I was pairing the fat people with good words, I felt more favorably towards them. But if I paired them with the bad words, my feelings became a bit more negative. And the same with thin people.

 

Shifting attitudes

When I reviewed my test results, I felt a bit better after seeing that 59% of people had a strong or moderate automatic preference for thin people. In comparison, 31% had either a slight or no automatic preference for thin people, while only 9% had any automatic preference for fat people.

 

In fact, fully 75% of respondents prefer thin people by either a little or a lot. Clearly I’m not alone. Why am I not surprised?

 

What’s interesting is that when I think about my own attitude, part of me feels like I’ve gone the opposite direction of the trends. 

 

I often feel like I’m more accepting of fat people now than I was when I was young and heavy. And it’s because I’ve come to accept my body.

 

I’ve mentioned before that my body acceptance started well before I lost all the weight. But I think part of my attitude change is also that I’ve seen both sides, as fat and thin, and I’ve learned that being thin doesn’t automatically make everything perfect. 

 

I also can’t help remembering that when I was heavy, I didn’t talk about how much I hated my body or idolized thin people. It was all internal. 

 

That makes me wonder if part of the reason for the general shift in attitudes has to do with rising obesity levels. Maybe as more people gain weight, they don’t feel like they can say anything against fat people, but inside, it makes them even more weight biased.

 

I can’t say for sure, but consider this. Between 2007 and 2016, obesity in adults increased by 5.9%. In that same time, as noted before, implicit bias increased by 6%. I know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it gives me pause.

 

How can you change bias?

At the end of the implicit bias test, the results said that no one can say for sure whether implicit biases can be reduced or eliminated. That’s not very encouraging.

 

They did suggest focusing on strategies that prevent implicit bias from coming into play, but I have another idea.

 

Awareness. 

 

The trouble with implicit bias, of course, is that you’re not aware of it. It can be difficult to catch the moments when you have those automatic responses, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It might help if everyone noticed that more.

 

And awareness shouldn’t only be about attitudes but also about the consequences of those attitudes. 

 

It’s becoming clearer all the time how harmful weight bias is, but I’m not sure how much of this has reached the general public. So anything we can do to raise that awareness can help. And that includes letting people know that these kinds of tests are out there.

 

What about you? What has your experience with implicit bias been like? Have you had any experiences where that’s changed? 

 

As for me, I think I’ll go back and take some of the other tests to see where I fall. I hope I’m fairly aware of any biases, but if I’m going to help change things, I should know for sure.

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