Weight Bias Internalization: The Maladaptive Effects of Moral Condemnation on Intrinsic Motivation

Susanne Täuber, Nicolay Gausel, Stuart W. Flint

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13 Citations (Scopus)
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Weight stigma typically focuses on suggestions that people with overweight and obesity are incompetent and immoral. Integrating so far unconnected lines of research, the current research presents two studies that examine the motivational relevance of these aspects of weight stigma. Specifically, we tested the proposition that people with overweight and obesity respond differently to the public viewing them as incompetent compared to immoral, as these aspects of weight stigma differ in reparability. We expect that threats to competence are more acceptable and thus related to a constructive response that is more effective in losing weight in the long-run. By contrast, we propose that threats to morality elicit an acute urge to defend one's moral image, thereby prompting responses that are more visible to the social environment, but potentially less effective for losing weight. Study 1 experimentally compared exposure to weight stigma focused on morality vs. weight stigma focused on competence in a sample of adults with overweight and obesity (N = 122; M-BMI = 31.89, SDBMI = 4.39). We found that when exposed to weight stigma focused on morality, people with overweight and obesity respond by defending their moral social-image but that this is less effective for encouraging weight loss, while exposure to weight stigma focused on competence led to an increased likelihood of engagement in weight loss behaviors. Complementing and extending the findings, Study 2 (N = 348, M-BMI = 26.78, SDBMI = 6.78) tested the notion that internalized weight bias predominantly revolves around moral concerns, and thus will lead to less self-determined behavioral regulation. We found strong support for the moral core of weight bias internalization. In line with our predictions, greater weight bias internalization was associated less self-determined and more other-determined regulation of dieting and exercising. This suggests that weight bias internalization operates as a facilitator of maladaptive behavioral regulation following weight stigma, contributing to lower psychological functioning and well-being of people with overweight and obesity. The current research presents novel findings about the underlying mechanisms of weight stigma and weight bias internalization and identifies strategies to avoid maladaptive and facilitate adaptive health behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1836
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 27-Sep-2018


  • weight stigma
  • moralization
  • incompetence
  • weight bias internalization
  • motivation
  • maladaptive and adaptive functioning

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