Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 286
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Fat People

Research reveals a way to overcome a triggering mechanism for the expression of prejudice.

Have you ever felt disliked . . . walked into a room, come face-to-face with a person, and felt a chilliness or tension? �This is definitely a person,� you said to yourself, �who won�t be sending me a birthday card this year.� It�s not very pleasant, and you probably wasted no time in minimizing your contact with this person.

Assuming you had done nothing to harm this person, the dislike you sensed most likely was based on a prejudice. The tension and chilliness were not overtly expressed. No one threw you out and told you not to return. Rather it was expressed subtly, in facial expressions, choice of words, tone of voice, and abruptness in ending the contact.

Some people arouse more prejudice than others. Attractive men and women arouse little prejudice. Doors seem to open for them as they approach. Unattractive men and women have more difficulty, but usually, there is no measurable difference in the expression of prejudice toward a person just because he or she is unattractive. This is not the case with obese, Caucasian women.

Obese, Caucasian women do experience prejudice, and they were the subject of a recent study conducted by Eden King from Rice University.

King began by measuring subtle instances of interpersonal discrimination by retail clerks in a shopping mall in Houston, Texas. He found a pattern of clear expressions of prejudice toward obese, Caucasian women. The clerks were ruder to the women. They hurried them to shorten their interactions. Clerks tended to use more negative language in their conversations. They smiled less, avoided eye contact, and seemed to be in a bad mood.

Next, King measured the economic impact of this prejudice. He found that the greater the expression of interpersonal discrimination, the stronger the impact on purchasing behavior. Obese women keenly felt the coolness of the clerks, and they spent less money than they intended to spend, and they made decisions not to return to stores where they had experienced prejudice.

Most research would end at this point, but King went farther in his study. He tested a way to make the discrimination disappear.

King tested a prediction of a brand new theory concerning the expression of prejudice. The theory recognizes that most of us do spontaneously experience prejudice, but usually, we suppress these feelings. Occasionally, we don�t. We express them, and the theory explains why this happens. It describes several triggering mechanisms that overcome our tendency to suppress prejudice. The trigger King investigated for the retail clerks in Houston concerned justification, a mental process that unfolded as the obese women entered the stores.

For the obese, Caucasian women in King�s study, justification worked on two levels in the minds of the sales clerks to weaken their tendency to suppress their expression of prejudice. The first involved the targets of the prejudice, the obese women themselves. It explained for the sales clerks why the women carried so much weight. It�s because the women lacked self-restraint and ate too much. They�re fat, and it�s their own fault. The first level of justification working in the minds of the sales clerks diminished their sympathy.

The second level of justification working in the minds of the clerks encouraged the expression of prejudice. It�s a rationalization, and it states that if the obese women knew that others disapproved of their weight, then perhaps they�d go on a diet. It�s a paradox. The clerks expressed interpersonal discrimination to help the obese women. Together, these two levels of justification serve to weaken the natural tendency to suppress the expression of prejudice, and the result is interpersonal discrimination.

King devised a way to weaken the justification the retail clerks felt. He put diet sodas in obese women�s hands, dressed them in sweat clothes, and directed them to mention efforts to diet and exercise in their conversations with the retail clerks. When they did this, new measurements of interpersonal discrimination revealed that it had disappeared. The intervention worked to weaken the clerks� justification for expressing prejudice, and a natural suppression reaction regained its strength and prevented the expression of prejudice.

The obvious conclusion of King�s work suggests that retailers should post people at the doors and hand out diet sodas to obese customers as they enter. Of course, King is quick to correct such notions. He doesn�t feel the obligation to correct the expression of prejudice rests with the person targeted with discriminatory behavior. Rather, he feels we should address the justification process with our clerks and specifically coach them to weaken the justification of prejudice toward obese women. He does not feel this will be difficult. It will take an unconscious process and make it deliberate.

Those retailers who successfully coach their clerks to make obese, Caucasian women feel welcome in their stores stand to gain an advantage in serving a large share of the market. Advantages this easy to gain should not be overlooked.

Reference: King, Eden B., Jenessa Shapiro, Michelle Hebl, Sarah Singletary, and Stacy Turner (2006) The Stigma of Obesity in Customer Service: A Mechanism for Remediation and Bottom-Line Consequences of Interpersonal Discrimination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(3), 579-593.

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