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Moral judgements directed at people with overweight have a disastrous effect on their motivation to adopt a healthier lifestyle

08 October 2018

People with overweight and obesity often find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice. They are accused of being slovenly, or lazy, or inept, or lacking in self-discipline. Such stigmas typically divided into two basic categories where people with overweight are labelled as incompetent or immoral. According to research carried out by Susanne Täuber of the University of Groningen and her colleagues Nicolay Gausel (University of Agder, Norway) and Stuart Flint (Leeds Beckett University, United Kingdom), it is the moral judgements of people with overweight and obesity that are especially detrimental to their motivation to exercise more and to adopt a healthier diet. The team’s findings have been published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Susanne Täuber
Susanne Täuber

Täuber and her colleagues indicate that moral judgements have a negative impact on people with overweight. As well as severely diminishing their intrinsic motivation for a healthier lifestyle, such judgements also lead to an increase in their ‘amotivation’, i.e. the degree to which they lose sight of the link between their own behaviour and the stated goal. This is reflected in comments such as ‘I don’t see the point in exercising more’ or ‘I honestly feel that trying to improve my eating habits is a waste of my time.’

Detrimental impact

Täuber: ‘Of course stigmatizing others is never acceptable, whatever form it takes, but our research shows that it is moral judgements that have a particularly detrimental impact on people with overweight. Experiences of weight stigma do not lead to increased motivation to engage in healthier behaviour. This is a common misconception. These experiences lead to reduced motivation, and our research suggests this is particularly the case when obesity is framed as the result of moral failings. Our research therefore highlights the need to remove moral judgments within public health and obesity portrayal, policy or campaigns.’

Neutral language is more effective

Täuber is concerned about the increasing tendency among creators of healthy living campaigns to base their message on moral judgements of people with overweight. ‘Exposing the intended recipients of the message to weight stigma is anything but beneficial. Our research focused on people with overweight, but the same principle applies to smokers, and indeed to anyone with an unhealthy lifestyle. We need to do all we can to steer away from a moralizing approach. It is far more effective to support positive lifestyle choices using morally neutral language.’

For further information

Please note that the authors are by no means suggesting that shaming people with overweight and obesity is legitimate. Our starting point is the observation that weight stigma predominantly revolves around notions of incompetence and immorality, and we aim to examine the different motivational responses to these aspects of stigma.

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Last modified:07 January 2021 3.48 p.m.
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