Research conducted by psychologists at Purdue University and Colorado State has found that a person’s perception of distances is influenced by their physical body weight.
The study, titled “Perceived distance and obesity: It’s what you weigh, not what you think” was published in the March issue of the scientific journal Acta Psychologica. The research was conducted by Mila Sugovica, Philip Turkb, Jessica K. Witt.
“One common assumption is that people who struggle with obesity make poor behavioral and lifestyle choices,” the researchers wrote, noting that obese individuals are more likely to drive — rather than walk — to certain destinations. “However, if we consider that people who weigh more than others perceive the world differently, they may in fact be making reasonable behavioral decisions given the way they perceive the environment.”
The researchers recruited 30 women and 36 men from outside a local store, and asked them to stand behind a piece of duct tape that had been placed on the sidewalk. The participants then guessed how far away an orange sports cone was from where they were standing.
After this simple task, the participants filled out a survey about their height, weight, and perceived body size. The researchers also physically measured the participants’ actual height and weight.
The researchers found that a person’s body weight influenced how far away they estimated the cone to be. In particular, those who weighed more tended to perceive the cone as farther away. This was true regardless of whether the participants felt they had a large or small body size. Their beliefs about their own body weight did not influence their distance estimates.
Surprisingly, body mass index (BMI) — a simple measure of body size based on height and weight — was not a factor. “Body weight corresponds to the amount of energetic work that must be done (i.e. the amount of mass that must be transported), whereas BMI corresponds to, in part, the way this weight is distributed,” Sugovica and her colleagues explained.
This finding suggests that a person’s overall body weight, rather than the distribution of fat and muscle, is the critical factor.
“Perception might be influenced by the overall energetic work regardless of the muscle available to help achieve said goal,” the researchers said.