Should you ask your overweight female client to diet before trial?
This isn’t an idle sexist query. And it isn’t really a sexist query as it stems from some new research findings out of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. They do research on bias against obesity and wanted to see if documented biases against the obese extend to the courtroom. You will likely not be shocked to find out that it does. But there are intriguing results beyond just that–gender adds a wrinkle to the way we look at culpability and punishment.
We want to point out that these research participants were not of the typical “undergraduate student” variety. Their average age was 34.9 (+/- 13.8 years) and they were asked to provide their height and weight so the researchers could calculate their BMIs (body mass index). All pictured “defendants” (i.e., lean female, obese female, lean male, obese male) were Caucasian.
Here’s how the researchers describe their work:
“Researchers conducted an online study with 471 adult participants. They were presented with a mock court case, including images of alleged defendants. Participants viewed one of four defendant images: a lean male, a lean female, an obese male, and an obese female. After viewing the image, participants were then asked to rate how guilty they thought the defendant was.
Male participants rated the obese female defendant guiltier than the lean female defendant, whereas female respondents judged the two female defendants equally regardless of weight. Among all participants, there were no differences in assessment of guilt between the obese male and lean male defendants.
Only the obese female defendant was penalized for her weight, a finding that is consistent with research published in the past 20 years that shows obese females face more weight-related stigma than obese males.”
These are intriguing results and the researchers also tell us that “weight discrimination has increased by 66% since 1995 and is now on par with rates of racial discrimination”. They identify negative stereotypes of obese people which will sound familiar: greedy, lazy, unmotivated, and commonly lacking in self-discipline and will power. We’ve written a lot about bias in general here and we’ve written about obesity biases too. But this research is specific to bias in perceptions of guilt or innocence, and how people react to defendants based on weight and gender. What can you take away from it?
If your client is male, his weight won’t really make a difference unless he is grossly obese and jurors are disturbed by him.
If your client is female, weight is going to be an issue for your male jurors who will blame your overweight client more than your lean client. This will be especially true among lean male jurors (a voir dire tip if there ever was one!).
This may be a situation where you want more female jurors than male jurors to mitigate punitive/blaming responses based on weight alone.
And, as always in situations that can cause bias unrelated to case facts, you want to educate jurors about how weight can cause unrelated biases.
Finally, it needs to be noted that this study was (obviously) of a criminal scenario. There is no question that these biases are at work in society, so any kind of case should keep the trends in mind. But in civil litigation, especially personal injury cases, we have found that jurors are consistently more likely to find excuses to assign contributory negligence on overweight plaintiffs than on trim ones– for men and women. There can be mitigating factors, such as clear health causes, but overall it is a significant obstacle. It finds expression in expectations of lack of vigilance, impaired self-care, poor discipline, disregard for their own welfare, inattention to warning signs of problems, et cetera. Overall, obese people are viewed as being less responsible and less virtuous. The gender difference seen in this study is consistent with our experience, but the impact of obesity can vary a good deal depending on the focus of the case.
Schvey, N., Puhl, R., Levandoski, K., & Brownell, K. (2013). The influence of a defendant’s body weight on perceptions of guilt. International Journal of Obesity. DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2012.211