The Protestant Ethic is an ideology which espouses a belief that success is a reward for hard work and determination, whilst a lack of success results from moral failings of self indulgence and a lack of self discipline (Quinn & Crocker, 1999). Thus, positive outcomes will be received by those who deserve them, have worked hard and are morally superior, but those who demonstrate a lack of self discipline, self indulgence and are morally flawed will experience negative outcomes. It has been suggested that Protestant Ethic values provide the foundations for the formation of anti-fat attitudes (Crandall, 1994; Hoverd & Sibley, 2007). Drawing primarily on this framework, this thesis examines the social perceptions of obesity employs a number of theories relevant to the aim of each study in the programme of research. Consisting of seven chapters, this thesis had four main aims. First, to examine UK adults’ perceptions of obesity using implicit and explicit measures, employing Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1995) and System Justification Theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) to explain beliefs about the controllability of obesity and anti-fat attitudes reported by individuals across a range of weight categories. Second, to examine the portrayal of obesity in UK newspapers, employing the Attribution theory (Weiner, 1995), System Justification Theory (1994) and Cultivation Theory (Gebner & Gross, 1976) to explain newspaper portrayal of the causes of obesity, self stigmatisation by the overweight and obese, and why individuals may perceive media portrayals as a reflection of reality. Third, to examine the effects of media portrayals of obesity, drawing on the Protestant Ethic values and Cultivation Theory (Gebner & Gross, 1976) to explain changes self and other perception that occur when exposed to media portrayals of obesity. Fourth, to examine the effectiveness of counter-conditioning as an attitude change intervention, using the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) to explain the anti-fat attitude formation and maintenance. Chapter 3 introduces the first study which examines implicit and explicit perceptions of obesity in UK adults aged 18-65 years. A cross-sectional sample of 2380 participants was recruited from across the UK. Participants completed implicit and explicit attitude measures of perceptions of obesity, and responses were analysed to examine how attitudes and beliefs compare across a range of demographic variables, such as age, sex and exercise frequency. This research highlighted that certain adult populations are more likely to report anti-fat attitudes about obesity, associate more negative characteristics with being fat and perceive obesity to be more controllable (e.g., high food consumption). The findings demonstrate evidence of beliefs that obesity is controllable explained using Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1995) and that the overweight and obese report anti-fat attitudes supporting the proposals of System Justification Theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994). This research also demonstrated that anti-fat attitudes are more negative than in previous reports and that differences were evident between implicit and explicit attitudes, highlighting the importance of measuring both forms of attitude. Alongside other research in this area, the study highlights attitude change as a potential aspect of obesity treatment and management. This consequently warrants attention in future research. Chapter 4 presents the second study which examines the portrayal of obesity in six UK newspapers over the period of a year, comparing broadsheet and tabloid depictions. This research demonstrated the difference in portrayal of the condition between broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, for example there were more articles about obesity and interventions to treat excessive fat in tabloid newspapers. Evidence also highlights the potential for media portrayals to contribute to negative perceptions of obesity with sparse commentary on genetic influences which may lead to misconceptions concerning the causes of obesity and the extent of media focus on obesity. Findings also demonstrate that Protestant Ethic values are evident within newspaper portrayals of obesity, promoting moral judgement of the overweight and obese. Portrayals of overweight and obesity are discussed using the Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1995) and the System Justification Theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994). The majority of appearance related research has examined television and magazine portrayals of obesity. Therefore by examining newspaper portrayal of obesity this adds to and extends current knowledge, for instance presenting evidence of the portrayal of obesity as a moral transgression. Chapter 5 presents study three which examines the effects of media portrayal on self and other perception, using three different sources to increase interpersonal awareness through exposure to others’ physical appearance and behaviour. Participants (n = 29) were exposed to three stimuli (UK tabloid newspaper article, UK broadsheet newspaper article and an obesity related UK television programme). Results indicated that the broadsheet and tabloid newspaper articles had deleterious effects on other perception, which are explained using the Protestant Ethic as these portrayals include information indicative of the ‘sins’ of gluttony and slothfulness. This research provides much needed novel information as the majority of appearance related research has examined the effects of general television programmes and fashion magazines on body related perceptions and on thinness and self perception. Chapter 6 presents study four which examines the effects of exposure to images of overweight and obese individuals on perceptions of obesity. A sample of 28 participants attended the laboratory on three separate occasions to complete implicit and explicit measures of attitudes towards obesity. In visit 1, baseline measures were obtained, followed, in visits 2 and 3 by two experimental conditions where participants were exposed to images of overweight and obese celebrities or members of the general public in counterbalanced order. It was initially expected that the images of overweight and obese celebrities would reduce anti-fat attitudes through their positive affiliation; however, this was not observed, but interestingly anti-fat attitudes worsened. On the basis of these results, it was suggested that formation of anti-fat attitudes occurs through the central route of processing of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). This implies that anti-fat attitudes may be robust and resistant to change. Results highlight a number of potential avenues for future research as well as providing important information on the effects that exposure to images of overweight and obese individuals may have on perceptions of obesity. Not only did this research suggest at the complex nature of perceptions of obesity, but also demonstrates the need for long term intervention to change anti-fat attitudes. Chapter 7 provides a discussion of the overall research programme, including applied implications that derive from the findings, strengths and limitations, and future research suggestions. Applied recommendations include intervening with media portrayal of obesity given the deleterious portrayal observed in study 2, the development of effective interventions to modify anti-fat attitudes, and increasing understanding of the condition to ensure that psychological and social aspects of the condition are appreciated alongside biological knowledge. As described above, this thesis also offers a number of potential research avenues for future research that appear warranted on the basis of the findings of the four studies. This thesis has made a number of useful contributions to research examining psychosocial aspects of obesity, demonstrating the pervasive nature of anti-fat attitudes, the link between Protestant Ethic values and negative perceptions of obesity, and the fruitfulness drawing on a number of theories to explain anti-fat attitude formation and maintenance.
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