Researchers study children’s attitudes toward obesity

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For some, it can be a struggle to fit in with peers at school. For a K-State psychology professor and graduate students, this social hurdle became the topic of a study, soon to be published in the Interpersonal Acceptance newsletter in January 2012.

Mark Barnett, professor of psychology, and psychology graduate students Tammy Sonnentag and Taylor Wadian worked with three other graduate students to study how students ages eight to 14 react to hypothetical students with “undesirable characteristics,” finding that children hypothetically responded least positively to peers who are overweight or aggressive.

“About three summers ago, I read a review article about children’s attitudes toward peers who are obese,” Barnett said. “The authors discussed some of the problems that obese children encounter such as rejection, teasing and depression. If this was happening with obese children, I wanted to know whether children with other undesirable characteristics suffered similar negative consequences.”

The study was completed in three separate parts conducted by the research team made up of Barnett, Sonnentag and Wadian, along with psychology graduate students Jennifer Livengood and Natalie Barlett and Rachel Witham, graduate student in counseling and student development. The team conducted research in northeast Kansas (Manhattan, Hanover, Washington) and in Edgar, Wis.

“We all worked together in formulating ideas and administrating them,” Wadian said. “Dr. Barnett played a large part in it. It was a lot like ‘House,’ where you have a big white board and you bounce ideas around together.”

During the first two parts, the researchers presented children with descriptions of hypothetical peers. Each of the hypothetical peers had various undesirable characteristics such as being overweight, aggressive or a poor student. The students were then asked questions about their perception of each peer, like “Is it this boy’s fault that he is extremely overweight?” The students were asked how they would respond to the peer with the undesirable characteristics. Would they befriend the peer or would they tease the peer?

In the third study, students read summaries of interviews with hypothetical male peers. In each interview, the peers discussed something about themselves that either they, or someone else, considered a problem. Students also rated how they would respond to a child with undesirable characteristics during the third study.

“During the first interview, each peer described the specific undesirable characteristic and indicated whether he wanted to change (or did not care about changing) that characteristic. During the second interview, which presumably occurred six months later, the peer described whether he had (or had not) tried to change that characteristic and whether he had been successful (or unsuccessful) in changing that characteristic,” Barnett wrote in the research summary, “Factors Associated With Children’s Acceptance or Rejection of Hypothetical Peers With Undesirable Characteristics.”

The researchers found that young children are more likely to respond negatively to a peer with undesirable characteristics when they believe that their peer is responsible for the undesirable characteristic.

“This pattern of results is consistent with attribution research demonstrating that individuals who are perceived as responsible for unpleasant persona circumstances due to negligence, laziness, or negative intent tend to be devalued and treated relatively harshly,” Barnett wrote in the research summary.

In addition, the researchers found that children believed they would respond more positively to peers who were successful in overcoming an undesirable characteristic over those who were unsuccessful. However, regardless of whether they were successful or not, the children responded more positively to the hypothetical peers who expressed a desire to change and exerted effort to change over those who did not express a desire to change.

While both male and female students participated in the study, the results were not equal for both sexes.

“In general, boys have anticipated responding more negatively to peers described as possessing undesirable characteristics than have girls,” Barnett wrote in the research summary. “This pattern of results is consistent with prior research demonstrating that boys tend to be less accepting of peers who are different or deficient on some dimension, and are more willing to socially exclude them, than girls are.”

However, Barnett said, girls’ wider “tolerance” did not extend to peers who were extremely overweight or extremely aggressive. In general, both male and female children anticipated responding more negatively toward peers who were overweight or aggressive over the other undesirable characteristics.

“It surprised me the most how much obese and aggressive individuals were disproportionally disliked, and how much it was linked to the fault aspect,” Wadian said.

Barnett agreed that obesity was unexpected outlier in the results.

“It made sense that aggressive peers would be rejected because they are mean and cause discomfort to their peers, but we didn’t expect such a strong negative response to obese peers,” Barnett said. “The children anticipated reacting negatively toward them just because they apparently don’t like the way they look. With the increasing prevalence of obesity in children, it is striking that there is still such a strong resentment of obese peers.”

While the study will be published after the first of the year, Wadian said the concept of peer acceptance is not a new one.

“It’s probably no different for children today than for children in the past,” Wadian said. “However, we are getting a better perspective on it than in the past. We are listening to what they have to say.”

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