Judging Behavior, Not Appearance

Posted: February 12, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

We all think we’re really, really smart.

And we are.  Evolution has turned us into some of the smartest, highly adaptable creatures on the face of the planet so far.  Evolution has done this through creating systems of shortcuts in our brains and bodies to ensure most time can be spent on thriving rather than simple survival.

Evidence of these systems is all around us, and depending on the discipline, the words may vary but the concepts do not.  In psychology we talk about heuristics (categories so we know how to deal with things), in neuroscience it’s brain categorization and cortex organization, in social science and justice movements we talk about stereotypes and prejudice. 

In each idea we see remnants of our incredible adaptation; we have these categories in our brains because if we had to think about daily minutia, we wouldn’t have (any) time left over for the business of thinking and living.  Invisibila just did a podcast on categories, talking about a person without the ability to create simple heuristics who was often baffled by different shaped couches (what is this?  is it a bomb?  I better stay away).

Categories are a part of our brains and our world, but if we’re not aware of these unconscious processes bad things happen.  This is why you’re more likely to associate negative words with a black face, even if you don’t think you’re racist.  This is why you promote a man after he mentors someone, while looking at the same task as part of a woman’s role in the workplace.  It’s why you assume someone who reads her daily horoscopes and drinks herbal tea is a holistic healer rather than a school teacher, even though it’s much more likely she is a teacher.

It’s the same reason we look at fat people and assume we know all sorts of things.

The thing that sucks?  It’s not entirely our fault.

We are deluged on a daily basis with news stories and talk shows and commercials, all telling us about how important it is to be thin(ner), how it’s a health issue, how we should be totally focused on our bodies.  This triggers what’s called the availability heuristic; when something’s always around and it’s on the top of our brain, we’re much more likely to overestimate the occurrence of this thing.  It’s the same principle behind why people are afraid of plane crashes, when it’s WAY more likely they’ll be in a car crash.

Bodies do not always reflect our behavior.  We’re taught that fat people get fat because they’re lazy, because they eat junk food, because their eating is out of control.  We’re taught that you can be thin if only…

If only you try harder, eat less, exercise more, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER.

No.  No, no, no.

It’s been pointed out that if diets were a drug, no self-respecting doctor in the world would prescribe them.  It’s been said that the billion dollar diet industry is built that way because no diet has been shown to work for long term, sustainable, healthy weight loss.  EVER.

Just as we don’t accept total character judgments based on skin color or hair color or gender, it’s time to acknowledge we have enormous prejudice against fat bodies.  And just as skin color is ultimately a ridiculous way to determine anything about a person’s character, so body size does not determine character.

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