Humans are obsessed with status. Beneath every social interaction, there’s an implicit power play. This is made stark by a North American study showing that the anticipation of a conversation with an obese person provokes in normal-weight people feelings of increased power and dominance, presumably because of the stigmatised status of obese people in the United States.
Olivier Klein and colleagues invited 77 normal-weight student participants to the psychology lab on the premise that they were to be observed having a introductory conversation with another student. The participants were shown a photo of the person they would be meeting and asked to provide some auto-biographical information before the meeting took place. Crucially, half the participants were shown a photo of an obese student, whereas the other participants were shown a picture of a normal-weight student.
The key finding was that participants expecting to have a conversation with an obese student were much quicker to indicate that words like “powerful”, “strong” and “dominant” matched their self-concept than were participants expecting to have a conversation with a normal-weight student. This effect was specific to power-related concepts. There was no difference for socially positive concepts like “friendly” or “outgoing”.
Moreover, participants expecting to chat to an overweight student reported feeling more socially powerful as revealed by their agreement with statements like “I could make the interaction more enjoyable for my partner” and “I expect that my partner will like me more than I like him”. Finally, participants waiting to talk to an overweight partner also tended to rate their partner more negatively, and were more likely to say that obesity is due to lack of willpower.
“Participants’ feeling of empowerment when interacting with an obese person may be based on the activation of obese people’s status in American society today,” the researchers said. “The perception of this lower status may have been used as a ‘cue’ triggering a perception of empowerment by the perceiver.”
Klein, O., Snyder, M., & Gonzalez, R. (2009). Stigma and Social Power: Expecting to Interact with an Obese Person Activates Power in the Self-concept. Self and Identity, 8 (4), 378-395 DOI: 10.1080/15298860802391413