The Fat Suit

This study came out last year, and there are a lot or reasons to dismiss it; Slate Star Codex does a good job enumerating some of them in §III here. Basically, the study measures (among other things) store clerks’ friendliness to the same patrons in and out of a fat suit. By juggling the numbers a bit they come up with some conclusions about discrimination against fat people which reporters then misstate and proliferate, as is the custom in science journalism.

So far it’s all pretty mundane, but I kept thinking about that fat suit. Ostensibly this is the study’s attempt at controlling for fat people and thin people being different, so they can focus only on the clerks’ reactions. But one thing we never learn is HOW GOOD THAT FAT SUIT LOOKS. I mean, is it obviously a fat suit? If clerks are making less eye contact with the person in the fat suit, is it because they’re fatphobic or is it because they’re wondering why someone in a giant Halloween costume is in their store? The real control should be people dressed as pirates, or chickens. How well do stores treat patrons in chicken suits?

A while ago I was watching something–I don’t remember if it was Borat, but it might have been Borat–where someone is acting crazy on the subway, and all the  NY straphangers are blase and ignore him. And my first thought was, like, blase New Yorkers, am I right? And then a friend of mine said, “Is there all this camera equipment right there in the car?”

So my second thought was: of course no one’s looking at the madman on the subway; with all the cameras on him he looks like an actor. And even if the film crew was hidden in some way (a possibility with increasing likelihood as cameras shrink) it’s still a guy clowning around in a ridiculous accent. Every rider on that subway car may or may not identify him as faking it.

We’ve spent all our lives pretending two things: that one wall of the Brady Bunch house isn’t filled with cameras and that the special effects are real. A weightless, translucent CGI monster creeps up behind the hero, and if you, the viewer, snort, “That’s not even happening,” you probably shouldn’t be watching movies. None of it’s happening, as you knew going in.

But then someone makes a video where a pretend bully pretends to pick on a pretend person (there are a lot of such videos), and we’re asked to judge bystanders on their actions. But we’re really judging them in part for their success or failure in suspending disbelief. “Should I interfere in these actor’s scene? Probably not. Doot dee doot.”

Borat and Rice University are hardly examples of real science, or course. Academics conducting real studies know that the artificiality of their constructs is a problem and try to work around it, with varying degrees of success.

But I’m going to try to keep this in mind, so I don’t get fooled by every dumb study that measures how people react to having studies done around them.

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