A new study about weight discrimination found surprising — and encouraging — results, revealing that only about 5 percent of people reported experiencing such discrimination.

The participants — nearly 3,000 men and women 50 and older — were asked how often they encounter five discriminatory situations: “In your day-to-day life, how often have any of the following things happened to you: (1) you are treated with less respect or courtesy; (2) you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores; (3) people act as if they think you are not clever; (4) you are threatened or harassed; and (5) you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals. Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’.”

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Among normal-weight participants, fewer than 1 in 100 (0.7 percent) reported experiencing weight discrimination. Among the overweight (those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9), fewer than 2 in 200 (1.4 percent) reported discrimination, and among the obese an average of 15.6 percent reported experiencing weight discrimination across three categories, with the most discrimination (35.9 percent) being reported by the most obese. Averaged across all categories, weight discrimination was reported by 5.1 percent of participants.

Thus the vast majority of people, 95 percent on average, said they have not been discriminated against because of their weight. Even among overweight people, over 98 percent said they had not been mocked, targeted, nor discriminated for their weight. The authors noted that the amount of reported discrimination found in the study was not unusual and “in line with previous prevalence estimates in this age group.”

Explaining the Low Prevalence of Weight Discrimination

The finding that the vast majority of overweight and obese people are treated respectfully and do not experience discrimination is encouraging and counter-intuitive news. After all, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and we often hear stories about people being subjected to “fat shaming” and insulting comments about weight.

Lead researcher Dr. Sarah Jackson of the Health Behaviour Research Centre at London’s University College told Discovery News, “I think the overall prevalence was relatively low because our sample was not restricted solely to those who were overweight or obese; 36 percent of participants were normal weight or underweight, 36 percent were overweight, and 28 percent were obese.”

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Jackson added that “research suggests that many overweight people don’t perceive themselves to be overweight, perhaps due to normalization of carrying excess weight. If people do not perceive themselves to be overweight one might expect them to be less likely to attribute experiences of discrimination to their weight.”

In other words, because many people underestimate their weight – believing themselves to be thinner than they really are — and if they experience rudeness, harassment or other insults, they may not attribute the experience to anything having to do with their weight.

The study also debunked the myth that weight discrimination and “fat-shaming” may somehow motivate weight loss and therefore promote better health. The study noted:

“Weight discrimination has been justified on the grounds that it encourages obese individuals to lose weight, but our results provide no support for this notion and rather suggest that discrimination exacerbates weight gain and promotes onset of obesity. Removing prejudice and blame from weight loss advice might be a better route to promoting weight control.”

The fact that this study specifically asked about real-life experiences may also be significant. Given all the discussions about online harassment, incivility and trolls, this finding may support the idea that the anonymity of the internet fuels mean comments. It’s easy to insult others from behind a keyboard but when we face people in real life we’re much kinder.

Overestimating Discrimination

Part of the reason why many people may assume that weight discrimination is more common than it really is has to do with the news media and the phenomenon of what psychologists call the availability heuristic. As noted in my book “Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us:”

“Our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. But the news media bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are.”

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In the news media, good news is often no news. We see occasional high-profile news stories of weight discrimination claims — such as a customer who sued Southwest Airlines in 2012 after allegedly being told she was “too fat to fly” — but we don’t see news stories about overweight or obese people being cheerfully accommodated and treated respectfully because, well, that’s not news.

When, on occasion, a pop star like Miley Cyrus gets called fat by anonymous bloggers, it makes news. But much more often when she’s called beautiful and hot — by fans, friends  and celebrity journalists — no one notices or cares. Because most people only hear about cases of nasty comments and discrimination they tend to assume it’s more common than it is. Experiences of weight discrimination are noteworthy (though rare), while experiences of non-discrimination are both common and not worth mentioning.

Of course, the fact that even a minority of people in this study reported experiencing discrimination is a problem. Weight discrimination is a serious and legitimate issue faced by many Americans. It is wrong, hurtful and in some cases illegal. It’s also thankfully uncommon according to the research. Overall this study is welcome news and suggests that the stereotype of most overweight people constantly enduring a barrage of social discrimination, ostracism and harassment is, thankfully, a myth.

The study, “Perceived Weight Discrimination and Changes in Weight, Waist Circumference, and Weight Status,” was published in the journal Obesity.