Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Heavy Burden of Stereotyping et al

The Heavy Burden of Stereotyping - Washington Post

'Fat Man' Finishes Walking Trek in NYC - AP

Man Crosses U.S. to Walk Off Pounds, Past - AP

Fat Attitudes - Washington Post

Cross-Country, Baggage & All - Washington Post

The ‘appeal to belief’ fallacy states that because many people believe a claim does not, in general, provide proof that the claim is true. Such is the case for the validity of the stereotype that people who are overweight are more lazy than are people of average weight.

While it is good for us to confront our biases, the first bias we must face is about stereotypes themselves, and the false notion that they are always inaccurate and bad. This simply is not true.

Stereotypes come in two forms, naturally occurring and ideological. Natural stereotypes evolve over long periods of time as combinations of autostereotypes, products of in-groups, and heterostereotypes, products of out-groups. The in-groups are people exhibiting the stereotype attribute, while the out-groups are those witnesses to the stereotype. When in-group and out-group stereotyping matches, the ‘kernel of truth’ test is passed, giving life-blood to this valuable short cut in communication.

In contrast, when the stereotype is ideological, it is not really a stereotype at all, but rather an imposter, designed to trick us into some nefarious action. Racist stereotypes fall into this category as race is an arbitrary construct, but indeed, not all differences are arbitrary.

If we can avoid the use of loaded terms like laziness, the real question that hardly ever gets asked is if sedentary ness correlates with reduced motivation. If we are speaking of motivation for physical activity, the answer is yes. We all have our empirical knowledge and experience as back up to this observation. Alternately, the motivation for cognitive activity, as we would expect, is unaffected by obesity.

In general, a healthy person of average weight who increases their sedentary behavior, in proportion to their active behavior, will gain weight, all other factors held constant. If they decrease their sedentary behavior their weight gain will reverse itself.

Regarding the Pygmalion effect, whereby people perform to expectations, their own and those of others, we should not confuse this with empirical observation of overweight people as more sedentary. The fact that people respond to errant images does not change the physical cause and effect of obesity.

Unfortunately, the stereotype of obese people as more sedentary and a greater risk for heath-related issues, is proven accurate, and presents a credibility challenge in the healthcare industry. Adjusting for health-issue distraction, the characterization of obese people as less-contributing to society, and therefore worthy of discrimination in opportunity is a stereotype 'imposter', unsubstantiated, and wrong-headed.

While subject to manipulation, stereotyping is an empirically backed, naturally occurring tool of human evolution, and advancement. Inasmuch, its study and understanding deserve our better attention.

James C. Collier


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