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Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity

Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity

This study examined the relevance of disgust to evaluations of an obese target per-

son, and the connection between disgust and prejudice toward that person. Partici-

pants (n 5 598) viewed an image of an obese or non-obese woman, and then evaluated that woman on a number of dimensions (emotions, attitudes, stereotypes,

desire for social distance). Compared with the non-obese target, the obese target eli-

cited more disgust, more negative attitudes and stereotypes, and a greater desire for

social distance. Furthermore, disgust mediated the effect of the target’s body size on

all of the outcome variables (attitudes, stereotypes, social distance). Disgust plays an

important role in prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity, and

might in part explain the pervasiveness of weight bias.

Weight bias is pervasive in Western cultures, and increasingly in

non-Western cultures as well (Brewis, Wutich, Fallette-Cowden,

& Rodriguez-Soto, 2011). One of the primary challenges faced

by researchers in the area is that efforts to reduce weight bias

have generally been ineffective (Danielsdottir, O’Brien, & Ciao,

2010). Most of these previous bias-reduction efforts have focused

on changing people’s cognitive beliefs about obesity (e.g., the

belief that body weight and obesity are under personal control),

but there has been a recent shift toward examining the emotions

underpinning prejudice toward individuals with obesity. Inter-

group emotions have featured prominently in the study of preju-

dice toward various social groups (Iyer & Leach, 2008), and

focusing on intergroup emotions might provide an avenue for

understanding the pervasiveness of weight bias.

The intergroup emotions most relevant in the current con-

text are the “moral emotions”; namely disgust, contempt, and

anger (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011; Rozin, Lowery, Imada, &

Haidt, 1999). Disgust is elicited when individuals cause impu-

rity or degradation to the self/others (Rozin et al., 1999) or

when individuals engage in what are perceived as intentional

immoral behaviors (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011); contempt is

elicited when people violate their duties or responsibilities

within the community or social hierarchy (Rozin et al., 1999)

or are perceived as incompetent (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011);

and anger is typically elicited when individuals harm others

or infringe on the freedom of others (Rozin et al., 1999),

particularly when the transgression is appraised as self-

relevant (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011). Cottrell and Neuberg

(2005) suggested that the specific emotion elicited by a group

depends on the threat posed by that group. Because obese

people are not generally seen as threatening to others or as

infringing on the freedom of others, disgust (and perhaps

contempt) responses might be more relevant than anger

responses in prejudice toward obese people.

Disgust has received the most attention in the weight-bias

literature thus far. For example, Park, Schaller, and Crandall

(2007) found that obesity is implicitly associated with

disease-related concepts. Furthermore, a series of studies by

Vartanian (2010a) showed that disgust toward individuals

with obesity was associated with more negative attitudes

toward those individuals, and that disgust mediated the asso-

ciation between beliefs about the controllability of body

weight and attitudes toward individuals with obesity.

Comparing the role of different emotions in weight bias,

Vartanian, Thomas, and Vanman (2013) found that disgust

predicted negative obesity stereotypes, but that contempt

and anger did not, thus suggesting a unique role for disgust.

Other researchers have examined the different types of dis-

gust, referred to as “functional domains” of disgust, which

include sexual disgust, moral disgust, and pathogen disgust

(Tybur, Lieberman, & Girskevicius, 2009). For example,

Lieberman, Tybur, and Latner (2012) found significant levels

of self-reported disgust toward individuals with obesity in

each domain, but also found that sexual disgust (i.e., how

VC 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc Journal of Applied Social Psychology 2016, 46, pp. 369–375

Journal of Applied Social Psychology 2016, 46, pp. 369–375

disgusting it would be to have sex with an obese person) was

significantly higher than the other two domains. Overall,

there is consistent evidence that disgust is related to evalua-

tions of individuals with obesity.

Although the studies described above provide initial

insights into the connection between disgust and obesity,

those studies involved evaluations of obese people at a group

level or as an abstract category, rather than focusing on evalu-

ations of a specific individual. It is possible that people’s men-

tal representation of “obese people” is more extreme than the

average person they might encounter in daily life who hap-

pens to be obese (Vartanian, 2010b), which might exaggerate

the observed associations. Thus, it is unclear whether the

same emotional processes will be involved when evaluating a

specific target person whose weight status or group member-

ship is not explicitly labeled. Furthermore, prejudice is often

experienced at an individual level (e.g., in the form of job dis-

crimination; Rudolph, Wells, Weller, & Baltes, 2009). There-

fore, it is important to determine whether intergroup

emotions (in particular, disgust) are related to prejudice

toward a specific target person.

An important component of the individual experience of

weight-based discrimination is being avoided or excluded by

others. For example, in a study of individuals in a residential

weight-loss facility, 56% reported that they had been avoided,

excluded, or ignored because of their weight (Friedman et al.,

2005). Similarly, in another study of weight stigma among

adult members of a weight-loss support group, 48%–54%

reported being avoided, excluded or ignored (Puhl & Brow-

nell, 2006). Although there is evidence that individuals with

obesity often feel excluded by others, few studies examining

prejudice toward individuals with obesity have measure

avoidance of those individuals as an outcome. One study did

find that implicit anti-fat attitudes predicted how far partici-

pants chose to sit from an obese person (Bessenoff & Sher-

man, 2000). Another study showed that participants who

viewed stereotypical portrayals of individuals with obesity

expressed more desire for social distance than did partici-

pants who viewed non-stereotypical portrayals (Pearl, Puhl,

& Brownell, 2012). However, there have been no studies

examining the role of intergroup emotions in a desire for

social distance from individuals with obesity. Because disgust

is generally considered to be an avoidance emotion (Oaten,

Stevenson, & Case, 2009), it seems likely that disgust would

be related to a desire for social distance from individuals

with obesity. Thus, examining the association between inter-

group emotions and social distance will enhance our under-

standing of the processes involved in weight bias.

This study extends previous research in two primary ways:

(1) We examined the relevance of intergroup emotions to

evaluations of a specific target person rather than evaluations

of an abstract group; and (2) we examined whether inter-

group emotions could explain desire for social distance from

the target person, as well as attitudes and stereotypes toward

that person. Participants were shown either an obese target

person or a non-obese target person and were asked to evalu-

ate that person on a number of dimensions. We predicted

that: participants would rate the obese target more negatively

than they would rate the non-obese target; disgust would be

a better predictor of evaluations of the target than would

contempt or anger; and disgust would mediate the effect of

the target’s weight on evaluations of that target.

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