Subconscious Stereotyping Leads to Hiring Discrimination

employees shaking hands
Topic(s): discrimination, fairness, selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2011)
Article: The Role of Automatic Obesity Stereotypes in Real Hiring Discrimination
Authors: J. Agerstrom, D.O. Rooth
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

New research (Agerstrom & Rooth, 2011) has shown that if hiring managers harbor negative stereotypes about obese people, they will also be more likely to actually discriminate against them. What makes this study interesting is that these stereotypes were held unconsciously.


The study was based on dual-process theory, which states that people have both conscious and unconscious mental processes. The conscious process concerns the attitudes and beliefs that a person is aware of and can explicitly verbalize, while the unconscious process concerns beliefs that a person is unaware of. The IAT (Implicit Association Test) is a test that was designed to measure these unconscious (or implicit) attitudes, and was used by the researchers in this study.


The researchers responded to actual job openings by constructing mock resumes that included a separate page with personal information and a photo of the applicant. Starting with a pool of photos of people judged to be similarly attractive, they manipulated half of the photos in a way that made the people look clinically obese. Then they recorded which applicants were invited to job interviews.

Eventually the researchers contacted the hiring managers, and many took an IAT test which measured their unconscious, implicit associations regarding obese people. After this, the hiring managers were also asked to state their preferences about hiring obese people, so that the researchers could also assess their explicit attitudes, meaning attitudes that a person is aware of and professes.


The researchers found that hiring managers harboring unconscious, implicit negative attitudes toward the obese were also less likely to invite the obese candidates for an actual job interview. These implicit attitudes were more useful in predicting the discriminatory behavior than the explicit attitudes were. In fact, the managers who explicitly professed a preference against hiring obese people did not, as a group, discriminate against them in their actual hiring decisions.


According to the authors, the results of the study strengthen the case for studying and understanding implicit attitudes. They say that the IAT test of these discriminatory attitudes has been criticized because researchers had a hard time showing that it was related to actual workplace behavior and outcomes. This study, they argue, shows that the IAT is relevant to predicting actual workplace behavior.

Additionally, this study gives much needed attention to workplace discrimination against the obese. Currently, note the authors, 34% of the U.S. adult population is obese. Worldwide, it is estimated that there will be 700 million obese adults by 2015. It is therefore important for researchers to continue to identify and understand the ways that these people may be treated unfairly. Likewise, it is important for practitioners to be aware of the potential for discrimination against the obese, as well as other unexpected groups of people, and to understand that this discrimination may be the result of deeply held bias that flies under the radar.

Agerstrom, J., & Rooth, D.O. (2011). The Role of Automatic Obesity Stereotypes in Real Hiring Discrimination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(4), 790-805.