Four years of Psychology has made me a huge fan of social experiments. Yes, my undergrad is in psych and yes, I’ll wait for you to stop giggling. While it didn’t make me a good counselor – as evidenced by my choosing Computer Information Systems for my graduate degree – it did give me a good background in how the human animal acts in herds.

These social experiments come with risks. You may recall the summer I was hired as a research intern to see how much free ice cream people would eat if no one was watching them (answer: a LOT). That one ended more than once with the subject screaming or crying from anger or embarrassment. The worst part though was that as part of the deal I also got to eat as much free ice cream as I wanted but the entire summer I didn’t touch a bite for fear that someone was going to weigh the garbage can after I left. It’s taken me a long time to be able to eat ice cream in a public place without taking my garbage home with me. (Incidentally only one of many ways that my psych degree has made me a stranger person than when I started out. Learning what happens when you take a steel rod through your brain and live to tell the tale really changes a person. Plus now I can name 50 uncommon fetishes.)

In addition to bad reactions from subjects, social experiments can be difficult to watch because many times they expose us to the worst in human nature. Take, for example, Stanley Milgram’s studies in obedience to authority in which subjects thought they were administering shocks to actors, increasing the “dose” until it was beyond pain and nearly lethal. The point was to replicate the social circumstances of Nazi Germany in which so many people sacrificed their friends, neighbors, coworkers and even family members to Hitler’s death regime. Sadly the experiment showed in a big way that it wasn’t just a few random Germans of that time period that could be manipulated into perpetrating horrendous acts.

So you will understand why I watched this with apprehension. Sure, ABC’s What Would You Do, a show that sets up controversial social situations and then films as bystanders react (or don’t), wasn’t pretending to kill people but they were publicly humiliating an overweight woman and I was sure it was going to get ugly. The setup: the show has an overweight actress applying for a job at a health foods store. The manager, also an actor, refuses to accept her application because he says her weight would make the store look bad. First, watch it: (It’s about 8 minutes and totally safe for work. If you are getting this through e-mail or a reader, please click through to watch.)

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Were you surprised? I was. Maybe I’m jaded but I was amazed at how many people came to the actress’s defense. I could see a lot of people thinking in their head that what the manager was doing was wrong but quite a few of them actually took the next step and said something. Some people comforted the actress while others confronted the manager or asked to speak to the owner. My favorite responder was a man sporting a shaved head and multiple visible tattoos getting so upset over how the woman was treated that he left his uneaten food in the store and stormed out after yelling at the manager. Perhaps he understands how cruel it is when people judge you by what you look like?

There was only one woman who agreed with the manager and commended him for his “honesty” adding that society “coddles people too much.” I don’t know if the show just didn’t show other patrons that sided with the manager (I think they have to give ABC permission to air their face? Maybe?) but the only other slightly negative bystanders were two girls in their early 20′s who said “I plead the fifth” and held up their hands as they walked out past the actress. Either way, by the end of the clip I wanted to jump to my feet and clap!

I think ABC makes a really good point, albeit in a slightly scary sensationalist way (seriously is there anywhere you can go without fear of being recorded?). I’ve talked on here before about how my friend was denied a job at the Godiva chocolates store that I worked at because of her weight. My manager told her they had no openings when she came in to apply despite the fact she’d told me the night before they were desperate to hire more staff. When I questioned my coworkers about it once succinctly explained, “Oh they only hire thin people. I mean we’re selling chocolate. People don’t want to be reminded of what will happen if they eat too much of our product.” And I’m sure that she was not the first person to lose a job because of her weight.

A study reported in the New York Times from clear back in 1992 states, “fat people are less likely to be admitted to elite colleges, are less likely to be hired for a job, make less money when they are hired, and are less likely to be promoted.” If anything, weight discrimination has gotten worse in the intervening decades, according to a 2010 study. Yet conversely “65% of American men and 81% of American women supported making weight-based discrimination illegal, particularly in the workplace.” Clearly there is a disconnect here between what people think is right and acceptable and what is actually happening.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about all this. On one hand I’m cheered by the ABC clip but on the other hand we still live in a world where young Kelly Osborne is purportedly considering gastric bypass surgery because she gained back 14 pounds of her famously hard-lost weight on her recent vacation and now she’s afraid she’ll lose her job as the face of Madonna’s Material Girl clothing line.

What did you think of the clip? Did the manager have a point – do you need to look healthy to work in the health industry? What would you have done? Have you ever seen weight discrimination in your workplace?

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