If people value equality, shouldn't they be less likely to discriminate against others based on arbitrary characteristics, like race or gender? It sure feels like people should act according to their values, but in recent research, we found that this is not always the case.

Inequality is a challenge for social species, including humans. In many species, social dominance varies between individuals, and all it takes is a quick glance to assess someone's relative dominance. Individuals who are physically larger are generally assumed to be more dominant. For example, some studies have shown that humans tend to base their impressions of a person's fighting ability simply on that person's apparent body height and bulk, even as seen in faces.

Humans, however, have also developed egalitarian values. "Values" are abstract ideals that guide people's behavior. Egalitarian values stipulate that people should be mindful of everyone's intrinsic worth, and that people should be treated according to their own individual qualities, without using arbitrary features like race, gender, or body size.

This focus on fairness and parity runs counter to valuing power and dominance. Whereas egalitarian values encourage critical scrutiny of social hierarchies, power values emphasize the benefits of social dominance and advancing up through social hierarchies. These values have different implications for attitudes and feelings toward people who are lower in social status because of their disadvantage, stigma, or related cultural norms. Whereas egalitarian values involve emotional attachment toward those lower in status, power values involve emotional attachment toward those higher in status.

So, how do people balance their egalitarian values with biases they have about body size? That is, how do people navigate common human values that prioritize equality and universal welfare over power and dominance over others?

How Values Relate to Perceptions of Obese People

Because values determine what people pay attention to, we hypothesized that people who hold strong egalitarian values pay more attention to features that threaten these values. We expected that people with stronger egalitarian values notice larger body size because it is consistent with greater physical dominance, which threatens egalitarianism. Indeed, higher body weight suggests more muscle strength and physical power. Therefore, people with stronger egalitarian values might evaluate obese people less positively due to their larger body size, even though obese people are a stigmatized, low-status group.

Across seven studies with a total of 991 adult French participants, we investigated whether this logic would play out. Participants evaluated obese people (both male and female). We also assessed egalitarianism and power values using implicit measures that indirectly measure attitudes without relying on self-reports (to avoid socially desirable responding). Participants were also asked to choose between obese and slim people in tasks requiring high muscle strength, such as changing a bus wheel. As expected, the more our participants cherished egalitarian values, the more negatively they judged overweight people. And the more they cherished power values, the more positively they judged overweight people. When choosing someone for tasks involving physical strength, more egalitarianism-oriented people were less likely to pick someone who was obese. In other words, people who were more committed to equality discriminated more against obese targets.

Body Perceptions Are Gendered

Although egalitarianism was related to more negative judgments of obese people, this was true mainly for judgments of obese men. But why?

Physical power may be more congruent with male gender expectations than with female gender expectations. Men are often stereotyped as more muscular and chunkier compared to the thin stereotypical ideal for women. Although some men strive to be heavier, women tend to face more negative consequences for being overweight. For example, women in the United States and Germany earn less when they gain weight, but men earn more when they gain weight up to the point of obesity.

The Complexity of Bias

Ironically, favoring egalitarian principles was associated with judging a stigmatized group (obese men) more harshly, rather than less harshly. There may be many times when people's values have ironic consequences for their behaviors and judgments, because of how their values direct their attention.

This finding is interesting in light of past research examining people's tendency to reward (experimentally created) arbitrary ingroups more than arbitrary outgroups. Participants in this research became more egalitarian after contemplating how the value of equality applies to groups typically thought of in the context of (in)equality (e.g., Black people, women) compared to when they contemplated how the value applies to groups that are less frequently thought of in the context of (in)equality (e.g., disabled people, left-handed people). Obese people may not come to mind when people think about egalitarian values, even though obese people experience employment discrimination and employers are reluctant to hire obese people even if weight is irrelevant to the job. Obese people may simply not be considered relevant to equal opportunity.

It might be wise for people to examine their egalitarian values on occasion. These values imply that everyone's intrinsic worth is independent of arbitrary characteristics like race or gender. But are other characteristics relevant? How does equality apply when weight, height, age, hair color, accent, handedness, and numerous other characteristics vary between people? For example, many people find it counterintuitive to think that there can be prejudice against young children, but such prejudice is real and important. By working through examples in a thoughtful manner, we come to know better when equality might apply and how.

For Further Reading

Souchon, N., Hanel, P. H. P., Coutte, A., & Maio, G. R. (2023). Prejudice among Egalitarians: The Case of Values and Weight Bias. European Journal of Social Psychology, 00, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2984

Souchon, N., Maio, G.R., Hanel, P.H.P. and Bardin, B. (2017). Does spontaneous favorability to power (vs. universalism) values predict spontaneous prejudice and discrimination? Journal of Personality, 85, 658-674. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12269

Maio, G. R., Hahn, U., Frost, J. M., & Cheung, W. Y. (2009). Applying the value of equality unequally: Effects of value instantiations that vary in typicality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 598–614. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016683

Maio, G. R. (2016). The psychology of human values. Taylor & Francis.

Nicolas Souchon is a social psychology researcher in LICAE from Paris Nanterre Université (France). He works on values, attitudes, and stereotypes.

Paul Hanel is interested in human values as well as reducing prejudice and stereotypes. He works at the University of Essex (UK).

Alexandre Coutté is an associate professor ("Maître de conference") in the Paris Nanterre University. In the LICAE (laboratory), he studies cognition and human behavior. Prof Gregory R. Maio studies values, attitudes, and behavior. He works at the University of Bath.