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A Fat Bias: Implicit or Explict?

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

When you see an overweight person walking down the street, or perhaps sitting in a meeting with you, what is your reaction? Do you cringe or try to avoid that person? Do you have thoughts- good or bad- about that person’s physical appearance? Are you even aware of your reaction or are they so deep seated that you react without being aware that you are doing so?

In her article entitled “Fat Bias Starts Early and Takes a Serious Toll”, Jane Brody addresses the issue of this “weight-based” bias (published August 21, 2017 in the Science section of The New York Times). She notes that researchers found that this “implicit weight bias” can develop in children as young as 9 to 11 years old and be as common among them as “implicit racial bias”. (Id.) According to the lead author of this study, Asheley C. Skinner, “…prejudices that people are unaware of may predict their biased behaviors even better than explicit prejudice.” (Id.)

That is, the implicit biases that we all have will be far more damaging than the explicit or acknowledged biases that we carry around in our heads. This implicit bias “… will result in discrimination and socially undesirable behavior that negatively affect people who are seriously overweight.” (Id.)

So- why do I raise this issue: because it affects every interaction that people have with each other. Whether we realize it or not, when we are in a dispute with someone, we may very well unconsciously be evaluating the merits of that person’s claim based (in whole or in part) on their appearance. We may, unconsciously, presume that the person is “lazy, undisciplined, dishonest and unintelligent.” Or, see them as “… ugly, award and non-compliant.” “(I See Fat People” by Carolyn C. Ross, M.D., M.P.H, Psychology Today ). Indeed, this latter article notes that “Defendants in lawsuits who are overweight are more likely to get slapped with a guilty verdict.” (Id., emphasis original.)

And based on these unfounded assumptions, we may very well fail to take their claim seriously or give it much merit. And, that will be to our detriment as we will have lost an opportunity to resolve a dispute before it goes any further, including trial!

(To determine if this bias is at work, ask yourself whether you would have the same reaction or analysis of the claim if it was being presented by a slender person?)

While Ms. Brody’s article in The New York Times notes that three states- New York, Maine and New Hampshire have explicit laws prohibiting discrimination based on weight and that even the federal American With Disabilities Act protects those who are “severely obese” against employment discrimination, I suspect that these laws are difficult to enforce due to the subtlety and unconsciousness of the discrimination.

Implicit biases: we all have them thanks both to our socialization and DNA. The trick is to recognize and be aware of them and work to keep them from overtaking our conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions.

So- the next time you sit down across the table from someone to resolve a dispute, do not judge “the book by its cover”; rather listen to what she is saying and evaluate her thoughts based on that alone and not on her appearance.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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