A Victoria woman’s research reveals that bias against overweight people has increased, while negative attitudes towards race and sexuality has gone down.
Victoria local and Esquimalt High School grad Tessa Charlesworth went from one coast to another to study at Harvard University where, as a graduate student in the department of psychology, she and colleague Mahzarin Banaji used data from a long-running internet test to make incredible findings in the field of prejudice and bias.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) has been running since 2004 and reveals both the “implicit” (internal bias) and “explicit” (conscious bias) of respondents – in other words, the outward and inward levels of prejudice people have against others based on skin tone, race, age, disability and body weight.
Implicit bias tests measured the length of time respondents took to press a specific key to categorize pairs of words in relation to social groups and attributes. For example – the word “good” would be assigned to either an image of a black or white person and researchers would compare how long it took for participants to respond based on the assigned category.
Participants also self-reported their associations – revealing their “explicit” or conscious biases.
Charlesworth collected over four million results from 2004 to 2016 and found that outwardly, self-reported bias towards all social groups and abilities had shifted towards neutral and inwardly, people’s bias towards race, skin tone and sexuality had also decreased.
But notably, bias towards elderly people and disabled people was basically the same, and bias towards overweight people had actually worsened – a contrast from the participant’s conscious responses.
Charlesworth has a few ideas about what the results might mean.
She speculated the ongoing social push against the obesity epidemic could have something to do with body weight perceptions.
“It paints overweight individuals in a really negative light,” she said. “It paints them as a public health crisis.”
But Charlesworth also noted that body weight is the only data set that participants perceived as controllable.
“That assigns a lot of responsibility to people who are overweight to change themselves – rather than the person who is perceiving the overweight individual to change their mind,” she said.
When it comes to areas where bias decreased, Charlesworth points to social priorities. She and her colleague actually looked at Google searches and found that there were far more conversations happening around homophobia and racism than ageism, ableism or sizeism.
“So we think that the more we’re talking about these biases and social problems, the more opportunities we have to make change,” she concluded. “It’s very simple: the more times we try to change our attitudes, the more likely we are to succeed in changing them.”
Charlesworth said she hopes to have career in academics – preferably back on the West Coast.
Charlesworth and Banaji’s study was published in Psychological Science.