Being overweight benefits men more in their careers, but not women: study

When we think about imposing figures in the workplace height is one of the first attributes that comes to mind. This pinched appraisal of physical dominance is abundant in academic literature as well.

However,  a new report from Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management looks at how a person’s weight influences perceived authority. As it turns out larger weight among men is associated with perceived credibility but among women the exact inverse is evident.

“While the “big man” leadership concept is based on studies of pre-industrial societies where weight embodied status, our findings suggest an evolved bias to favor moderately big men–with respect to perceived persuasiveness–even in environments where there is no reason to interpret over-consumption of food and conservation of energy as a signal of wealth,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The gender-specific influences of weight upon persuasiveness

Across six separate studies, the researchers found that male workers who were on the heavier side were consistently viewed as more persuasive compared to heavyset women and “lightweight” men.

The pilot study was an exploratory questionnaire derived from 78 undergrads enrolled in business courses at a private university located in the US.

The researchers asked each respondent to list the first three words that occurred to them when they read the word “heavyweight”  or “lightweight.”

Invariably the participants ascribed adjectives linked to strength and authority to “heavyweight.” Conversely, when tasked with describing a lightweight individual the same pool employed terms like “weak,” “pushover,” and “unqualified.”

At the end of the free-listing exercise, the researchers concluded that athletics tends to fund our “bigger is better” appraisal of dominance and influence even in fields wherein mass offers no advantage.

In the second leg of the study, the researchers used a five-point scale to survey how strongly respondents agreed with the following four statements:

  • “I think that heavy people are more likely to be persuasive.”
  • “I think that heavy people are more likely to be perceived as persuasive.”
  • “I think that light people are more likely to be persuasive.”
  • “I think that light people are more likely to be perceived as persuasive.”

The second statement received the strongest scores from the majority of the respondents.

In the third study, subjects were asked to describe a figure with gravitas by using only one of the following adjectives: Underweight, Normal-weight, Overweight, or Obese. Again the lion’s share believed that a person with gravitas would be a person that was overweight but not obese.

While “big-man” has a colloquial basis in culture and scholarly research there isn’t an anthropological preset for “big-woman ” as it relates to positive perceptions.

For the fourth study, the researchers set out to determine the gender-specific impact of weight upon persuasiveness.

Using unlabeled drawings of heavy women and men, respondents were asked to rate each illustration on a nine-point scale based on how persuasive, extraverted, humorous, and physically attractive they expected the person to be if they were real.

In this exercise, a positive correlation between overweight men and persuasiveness was established while no positive linear-relationship was observable with overweight female stimuli.

Study’s five and six replicated the data of the previous four studies in a non-western setting and with the relative variables taken into account, respectively. Subjects judged heavyweight male models to be more persuasive than lightweight male models and female models of both body types.

“In contrast with research that highlights the stigma that is commonly associated with being overweight, we present a set of six studies in which we find that the anthropological concept of “big men” can carry literal meaning – in relation to “big” ness and “men” – in contemporary settings….,” the authors concluded in the study. “[Our studies] show that extra weight is not an asset for women in relation to persuasiveness. In that regard, our detection of opposite biases for men and women affirms the conventional focus on weight’s potential for stigmatizing people.”

The study was co-authored by Kevin M. Kniffin, Vicki L. Bogan, and David R. Just.

The authors stressed that individuals should not attempt to put on weight to convey a sense of authority but consider examining where our perceptions of strength and cogency are procured to begin with.