Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
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Theories of Weight Bias

Because weight bias is so pervasive and affects so many people, understanding why it exists is crucial. To date, however, no theory has fully explained the reasons for weight bias, or the origins of negative stereotypes, in ways that would help society reduce the problem.

Some research in social psychology does address specific aspects of stigma that can help increase our understanding of weight bias. For example, “attribution theory” suggests that, in reacting to a stigmatized condition like obesity, people tend to ascribe reasons for that condition. We do this with many types of people because it helps us to quickly categorize information about social groups and form expectations of the people in those groups.

This theory suggests that obesity stigma occurs when we make negative attributions to explain negative life outcomes. Traditional North American values of self-determination and individualism provide a foundation for these attributions; our culture tends to believe that we live in a fair world where people are responsible for their life situation and get what they deserve. Despite research suggesting that body weight is determined by a complex interaction of genetic, biological and environmental factors, most people continue to believe that obese individuals are responsible for being overweight, and that weight gain or loss is under a person’s control.

In other words, attribution theory proposes that negative stereotypes come from attributing other people’s life situations to matters of personal responsibility. Thus, someone who believes that weight is a matter of personal responsibility is more likely to blame and stigmatize those who are overweight.

Attribution theory and other psychological perspectives on stigma can be found our reference library. Continued attention to theoretical work is crucial as we continue to build a foundation for understanding weight stigma.