Understanding Weight Bias: The Role of Social Norms and Contact

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Weight bias is a pervasive issue in society, even as average body size in the United States has increased significantly over recent decades. Despite this shift, the stigma directed at individuals with higher weight persists. A recent study by Standen, Ward, and Mann (2024) delves into this phenomenon, exploring the relationship between social norms, intergroup contact, and weight bias. This blog aims to break down their findings and discuss the implications for reducing weight stigma.

What is Weight Bias?

Weight bias refers to negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes directed at individuals based on their body size. This bias can manifest in various ways, including discrimination, social exclusion, and even verbal or physical abuse. Despite societal shifts toward greater acceptance of diverse body types, weight bias remains stubbornly entrenched.

The Study: Key Concepts and Hypotheses

The researchers investigated how people’s perceptions of social norms regarding higher weight and their personal experiences with individuals of higher weight influenced their weight bias. They focused on three main concepts:

  1. Descriptive Norms: How common people believe it is to have a higher weight.
  2. Injunctive Norms: How socially accepted people believe it is to have a higher weight.
  3. Intergroup Contact: The quantity and quality of social interactions people have with individuals of higher weight.

The study hypothesized that greater perceptions of higher weight as common and socially acceptable would correlate with lower weight bias. Additionally, they predicted that higher-quality social contact with individuals of higher weight would also reduce weight bias.

Study Methodology

The study involved 272 participants from the United States who completed online questionnaires. These surveys assessed their perceived social norms, experiences with individuals of higher weight, and explicit weight bias. The researchers also examined participants’ perceived weight and their level of identification with their weight category.

Findings and Insights

The study’s findings supported most of the researchers’ predictions:

  1. Descriptive Norms and Weight Bias: Participants who perceived higher weight as more common reported lower weight bias. This suggests that when people see higher weight as a norm, their negative attitudes decrease.
  2. Injunctive Norms and Weight Bias: Participants who believed that society generally accepts higher weight also exhibited lower weight bias. This indicates that societal approval plays a role in shaping individual attitudes.
  3. Intergroup Contact: Quality of contact with individuals of higher weight emerged as a crucial factor. Participants who had positive, meaningful interactions with higher-weight individuals showed significantly lower weight bias. Interestingly, the quantity of contact alone was less impactful.
  4. Ingroup Favoritism: Participants who perceived themselves as heavier and identified with their weight group exhibited lower weight bias, demonstrating an ingroup favoritism effect.

Implications for Reducing Weight Stigma

The findings offer valuable insights for developing strategies to combat weight bias:

  1. Promote Positive Social Norms: Campaigns that highlight the commonality and acceptance of higher weight can help shift societal attitudes. By normalizing higher weight, these campaigns can reduce stigma.
  2. Encourage High-Quality Interactions: Initiatives that foster positive, respectful interactions between individuals of different body sizes can significantly reduce weight bias. This is particularly relevant in settings like schools, workplaces, and healthcare facilities.
  3. Support Ingroup Identification: Encouraging individuals to embrace their body size and identify positively with their weight group can help mitigate self-stigma and foster supportive communities.


Understanding the social psychology of weight bias is crucial for addressing this pervasive issue. By focusing on social norms and the quality of intergroup contact, we can develop more effective interventions to reduce weight stigma. As this study suggests, promoting positive perceptions of higher weight and fostering meaningful interactions can pave the way toward a more inclusive and accepting society.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can communities create more opportunities for high-quality interactions between individuals of different body sizes?
  2. What are some examples of media or campaigns that have successfully challenged weight bias?

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About the Author

Dr. Jonathan P. Scaccia, PhD, is a clinical-community psychologist with expertise in public health science and practice. He has led evaluation and research initiatives focusing on health equity, vaccine distribution, and organizational readiness. Dr. Scaccia has contributed to federal suicide prevention programs and vaccine equity strategies. He has been recognized for his impactful work and is a leading voice in advancing public health practices.

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