People see fathers as a more distinct group after reading about so-called Dad Bods, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The study found that learning about changes associated with fatherhood reduced differences in essentialist perceptions of mothers and fathers.

“Previous work from our lab found that mothers are seen in more essentialist terms than fathers—that they are seen as being a more real and meaningful group—and that the physical transformation of pregnancy that women undergo when they become mothers is at least partially responsible for this difference,” explained study author Erin McPherson of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“We were curious whether a similar kind of physical change experienced by fathers would cause fathers to be seen as a more essential category, more similar to how mothers are seen. The increasing prevalence of the Dad Bod in popular media and discourse presented an opportunity for us to examine this question.”

In two studies with a total of 1,164 participants, the researchers found that learning about physiological changes experienced by fathers increased essentialism ratings of them. In other words, people who learned about changes fathers experience were more likely to agree with statements such as “Men who are fathers are a very distinct and different group from men who are not fathers.”

The participants read news articles about the changes that men and women experience when becoming fathers and mothers before completing a survey on essentialism. The researchers found that reading an article about Dad Bods lead to greater essentialism ratings than reading an article about increases in oxytocin levels after becoming a father.

“When people learn about physiological changes that men experience when they become fathers, they see the entire category of fathers in more essentialist terms, more similarly to how they already see mothers. They see the category of fathers as more permanent, natural, and meaningful,” McPherson told PsyPost.

“These physiological changes can be both invisible, such as increased levels of hormones like oxytocin, or directly observable, like gaining weight and acquiring a Dad Bod—both kinds of change produced the same result of greater essentialism toward fathers.”

Though the difference in essentialism between mothers and fathers was reduced in the study, fathers were still viewed as a less distinct group.

“While we were able to use physiological information about fathers to significantly increase essentialism toward fathers, the overall magnitude of the increase was small, and participants on average still saw mothers in more essentialist terms than fathers (the new information about fathers attenuated but did not eliminate this difference),” McPherson explained. “In addition, people’s reasoning about the cause of the physical transformation that we described remains unknown.

McPherson also said the study had some caveats.

“It could be that a socially caused Dad Bod (e.g., weight gain due to having less time to exercise) would lead to different perceptions of fathers compared to a biologically caused Dad Bod (e.g., weight gain due instead to hormonal or metabolic changes). The potential consequences of increased essentialist perceptions of fathers (for instance on opinions about parenting roles or family-relevant public policies) also remain to be seen.”

“The physiological changes that we described in the study (hormonal changes and the Dad Bod) are real phenomena that are becoming increasingly common in discussions of fathers in popular media and culture,” McPherson added. “We now have initial evidence that this information can shift how people think about fathers as a group, which makes it possible that overall cultural perceptions of fathers may be currently shifting in similar ways.”

The study, “Psychological consequences of the Dad Bod: Using biological and physical changes to increase essentialist perceptions of fathers“, was authored by Erin McPherson, Sarah Banchefsky, and Bernadette Park.