Wednesday, July 4, 2012

News gives important insights into social psychology

I was at the hospital the other day to get my thyroid checked (normal!!) and while in the waiting room overheard a piece on the news discussing stereotypes linked to a woman's weight. The newscasters stated that thin women are viewed as controlling, demanding, and self-absorbed, whereas women who are overweight are judged to be lazy and apathetic.

This is the perfect example of how scientific findings can be blown completely out of proportion. Perhaps one of the news anchors read a release on the study, or skimmed the abstract.  Both of these sources are abridged and tend to hyperbolize significance and over-extend conclusions.  You need to take a minute to think about what the study actually tested.

For example, in this study subjects were probably merely shown pictures of overweight and underweight women and asked to score their perceived personalities.  I ask you, how relevant is this to real life??  Essentially, this method would measure the opinion of a person that walks by you on the street.  Am I really going to feel bad about myself because that person takes me to be a bitch because I'm in shape?  Um, no!  And to further undermine these findings, am I going to think that some heavyset woman dressed to the nines and walking confidently is lazy??  Again, NO.  When I first read Romeo and Juliet, the teacher stopped the reader after the part where Romeo and Juliet see each other at the party for the first time.  She asked the class to think about "love at first sight" and then polled us to see if we thought that you could tell anything about a person "at first sight."  I remember distinctly that one of the stuck up girly girl bullies (she made fun of my Star Wars pen and I hope she's jobless and still living with her parents) in our class answered that no, you can't tell anything about a person that way!  I bit the bullet and risked being the shallow one by countering that yes, you can know something about a person by seeing them across the room; by observing what they're doing, who they're with and how they're dressed, you can start to get an idea of who they are.  And obviously the more time that you spend with a person, this initial skeletal opinion will be shaped and built upon as you find out who they really are.

So if this study tells us anything, it's how we judge other people without meeting them and with no context whatsoever.  I guess it sometimes happens that this sort of opinion is relevant, but not often.  The issue is that so often when scientific studies, especially those in psychology, are taken out of context the conclusions can lead us to addressing the wrong problems.  Should women now worry that they have to fight these stereotypes?  I don't really think so.  Maybe instead what we should take away is the fact that anyone who judges you on your appearance and not your personality isn't worth your time!  Even if this study reflects innate or socially-driven first responses to our peers, we are not trapped by these feelings and opinions because we are thinking, self-aware beings.  When will newscasters (and for that matter, politicians), start taking this into consideration?

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