The research, conducted in a large Houston shopping mall, will be presented in a poster session at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) April 15-17 in Los Angeles. SIOP singled out the study as the most outstanding student contribution to the conference by selecting it for the organization's John C. Flanagan Award.
"The results of our research revealed that although customer sales personnel do not formally discriminate against obese customers, they do discriminate in subtle, interpersonal ways," said Eden King, who was co-principal investigator of the study with Jenessa Shapiro when they were undergraduate students at Rice. King is now a Rice psychology graduate student, and Shapiro is a graduate student at Arizona State University. They collaborated with Rice graduate students Sarah Singletary and Stacey Turner and adviser Mikki Hebl, the Radoslav Tsanoff Associate Professor of Psychology and Management.
The study was conducted in three phases: the first documented the discrimination; the second evaluated a way to reduce the discrimination; and the third focused on the financial repercussions discrimination can have on businesses. The researchers used female participants only for their study because research consistently shows that women are judged and stigmatized on the basis of weight and appearance more than men are, King said.
Ten average-weight Caucasian women between the ages of 19 and 28 played the role of customer in four different scenarios: an average-weight shopper in casual attire, an average-weight shopper in professional attire, an obese shopper (the result of a size 22 obesity prosthetic worn under the clothing) in casual attire and an obese shopper in professional attire. Following a memorized script, the shoppers sought assistance with picking out a birthday gift in various stores; after each shopping experience, they filled out a questionnaire evaluating the way they were treated by the sales clerk. A tape recorder in their purse captured the conversations so that the sales clerks' tone, inflection and choice of words could be analyzed. In addition, the researchers stationed an observer in the store within hearing range of the shopper to provide a second opinion of how each interaction fared by filling out a questionnaire after each shopping experience.
Based on data from interactions in 152 stores in a large mall, the researchers found greater levels of interpersonal discrimination directed toward obese shoppers than toward average-weight shoppers. The findings were based on the observers' and customers' reports of the sales clerks' eye contact, friendliness, rudeness, smile, premature ending of the interaction, length of interaction time, and negative language and tone. Almost three-fourths of the sales clerks were women.
"One of the most stigmatized groups is the obese because their problem is perceived to be controllable," King said. She noted that in her study, the casually dressed obese shoppers experienced more interpersonal discrimination than the professionally dressed obese shoppers and both the casually dressed and professionally dressed average-weight shoppers. The professional attire implied that the obese shopper was making an effort to improve her appearance, which removed the justification for prejudice, King said.
The next phase of the study seemed to bear that analysis out. Seven women between the ages of 19 and 24 (six Caucasian, one Hispanic) took on the role of obese and non-obese shoppers, but another variable was added: the shopper carried either a diet cola or an ice cream drink. The diet-cola drinker called attention to her drink and mentioned that she's on a diet and just completed a half marathon. The shopper with the ice cream drink also called attention to her beverage and mentioned that she's not on a diet and could never run a half marathon.
Based on interactions conducted in 66 stores, interpersonal discrimination did not differ between average-weight shoppers regardless of whether they were carrying the diet cola or the ice cream drink, or between obese shoppers who drank the diet beverage. As King noted, the perception that the latter group was making an effort to lose weight lowered the justification for discrimination against them. The obese shoppers with the ice cream drink received the greatest amount of interpersonal discrimination, presumably because they fit the stereotype of overweight people as being lazy.
"When justifications for discrimination can be identified, obese individuals receive more negative interpersonal treatment than average-weight individuals," King said. "Our results suggest that by targeting and removing justifications for prejudice held by perceivers, manifestations of interpersonal discrimination directed at customers and/or employees can be curbed."
The third phase of the study entailed a survey of 191 Caucasian women recruited from an outdoor shopping arcade in the Houston metropolitan area. The survey form asked them to evaluate their interaction with the sales clerk, how much they had planned to spend and the amount they actually spent at the store, and several other variables, including the likelihood that they would shop again at the store and recommend it to a friend. The research assistants who collected the surveys made note of each participant's body type as the forms were turned in.
Obese individuals reported more interpersonal discrimination than did average-weight individuals. Reports of greater interpersonal discrimination were related to spending less time in the store, spending less money than originally intended, and reduced chances of returning to the store in the future. While these results aren't surprising, they serve as a reminder that businesses have not just ethical but financial reasons to investigate the behavior of their employees and train them to avoid discrimination.
King said the discrimination observed in her studies was manifested in covert, interpersonal forms rather than in traditional or overt forms, which is consistent with modern theoretical conceptualizations of prejudice. She cautioned against interpreting the research to mean that overweight people should manipulate the justifying mechanism of controllability of obesity to guard against being stigmatized. "We do not believe and would not advocate that the burden of discrimination reduction should lie with its victims," she said.
Hebl noted that the students' research called attention to a particularly harmful form of discrimination. "This is one of the first studies in our field to show the bottom-line consequences for organizations that discriminate against obese individuals," she said. "And while there are strategies that obese individuals themselves can adopt, it may be time for organizations to take more proactive approaches toward eliminating discrimination toward groups that are stigmatized but not yet protected."