Science

Are Fat People Dumber Than Thin People?

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Sorta transcript:

Study: Fat People More Likely to Be Stupid, reads a headline, and oh look, it’s accompanied by a photo of a fat person I don’t like! Isn’t it great when science officially confirms our bigotry?

Of course, it would help if that was in fact what actual research confirmed, but let’s be honest, who reads past the headline, let alone reading the actual study it’s supposed to be referencing (and yes, in this case the study is available in full online to anyone who wants to read it, though admittedly reading it would require knowing how to read a scientific study).

In this case, the actual study not only doesn’t show that fat people are stupider than thin people, but it doesn’t even begin to look at intelligence. At all.

The researchers in question are actually very clear in the study, pointing out that this is preliminary research using a tiny sample size of people — 32, of which 2 were underweight, 17 were normal weight, 6 were overweight, and 7 were obese. And they didn’t give any of them intelligence tests or attempt to evaluate their relative stupidity in any other way. All the researchers did was give the subjects MRIs.

And what they found was simply a correlation between BMI (body mass index) as well as BFP (body fat percentage) with brain structure and activity, particularly in areas of the brain associated with impulsivity and reward processing. Remember a few weeks ago when we learned that potheads’ brains’ reward centers light up differently when they see pot compared to when they see pencils? Yeah, that also didn’t mean that potheads are stupid. It means that what they do affects their brains, and their brains affect what they do.

So this new research shows a correlation between BMI/BFP with certain brain structures, and it’s worth noting that that correlation holds true across all the subjects’ body types, meaning that there were differences between “underweight” and “normal” subjects and even within the “normal” itself. And there were some outliers, which become more important the smaller your sample size is.

Plus, there’s no way to know if the correlations are actually causation, meaning that putting on body weight affects our brains, or if there’s causation the other way, meaning that differences in our brains affects our ultimate body weight.

Kudos to the researchers in this study for not only clearly stating their research’s limitations in the published paper but also for speaking out against the ridiculous way their research was taken out of context in the media.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. August 3, 2016 at 5:47 pm —

    I think this article needs Myles Power to completely debunk it after reading some pro-body-shaming blog and explain how you are dishonestly representing the pro-body-shaming field of science with your ideology of actually reading studies (it’s not about feminism!)
    Thanks for the post, and honest scientists.
    =8)-DX

    • August 4, 2016 at 9:10 am —

      Wow, I need to keep up.

      I had forgotten who Myles Power was and instead wondered what Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog was going to do about this study. ;P

  2. August 3, 2016 at 8:31 pm —

    Ah, headlines! I might posit the inverse: that stupid people are more likely to be fat, since they might not understand the relationship between the types of food they eat and their excess weight. But the headline mucks it up horribly.

    I happen to have genius IQ–but I am indubitably obese. My ability to curb my appetite is horrid. I am completely aware of it at an intellectual level but not in command of it. I’ve set up healthy diet and exercise regimens and peeled off the pounds, twice over my lifetime. I lost weight sensibly and at a steady rate to the point that I looked fantastic. I even won some Lara Croft cosplay contests against contestants much younger than I. Without the benefit of PhotoShop.

    But then those doomed brain patterns kick in and combine with the inevitable metabolic slowdown that comes with age, and voila! Obesity. Again.

    I am interested in further studies identifying impulse control, especially if it can be put to practical use through discovery of what changes those brain patterns on some long-lasting, fundamental basis.

    Thanks for pointing out this research, despite the misleading headlines.

    • August 4, 2016 at 7:11 am —

      that stupid people are more likely to be fat, since they might not understand the relationship between the types of food they eat and their excess weight. But the headline mucks it up horribly.

      The headline “mucks it up” because, as Watson writes, the study doesn’t evaluate stupidity at all. Your “inverse” is similar unsupported garbage.

      I am interested in further studies identifying impulse control, especially if it can be put to practical use through discovery of what changes those brain patterns on some long-lasting, fundamental basis.

      That sure sounds science-y enough, but can you explain these “brain patterns” you are referring to? How are they related to “impulse control”? I thought you said fat people are fat because they don’t understand calories.

      In the meantime, this should do you some good.

  3. August 6, 2016 at 10:28 am —

    Yeah but if you want grant money in the future, your study has to have a headline-worthy conclusion.

    • August 6, 2016 at 5:45 pm —

      Not even remotely close. The researchers don’t write the media articles or pick the titles.

      They write the papers published in scientific journals and the title the researchers picked for that was “Effects of Body Mass Index and Body Fat Percent on Default Mode, Executive Control, and Salience Network Structure and Function”.

      Catchy, isn’t it?

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