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How Our Brains Turn Women Into Objects

There is, it turns out, more than one kind of "objectification"



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Recent reports of a mountain lion or cougar stalking the campus of the University of Iowa prompted campus jokesters to tweet their surprise that Michelle Bachman was in town. A cougar, colloquially, is an attractive older woman who seeks out trysts with younger men, and to some, it seems that Bachmann fits the bill. This emphasis on appearance is nothing new for high-profile women who are anything but homely, and feminist scholars are quick to point out its potential detrimental effects on perceptions of female competence.

Of course, we don’t need to consider reactions to political candidates to understand this idea. There is a well-known tension between seeing someone as, and appreciating them for, a body as opposed to a mind. At least, that’s what parents tell their daughters when their school clothes veer too far towards the revealing.

Science has backed parents up on this. A recent study found that showing men pictures of sexualized women evokes less activity in areas of the brain responsible for mental state attribution—that is, the area of the brain that becomes active when we think we are looking at an entity capable of thought and planned action. Other studies have found similar results. When men see body shots of women as compared with face shots, they judge women to be less intelligent, likeable, ambitious and competent.

A new study by Kurt Gray and colleagues in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, however, suggests that this kind of objectification might not cause perceivers to see women as mindless bodies but instead cause a transformation in the kind of minds that they perceive.

Research into mind perception has found two dimensions along which we tend to categorize others: agency (the capacity to act, plan) and experience (the capacity to feel emotions). A robot, for example, is high on the dimension of agency but low in experience. It can think, but it can’t feel. When we see flesh, on the other hand, we tend to see experience but not agency—an entity capable of pleasure and pain but not necessarily the sharpest or most useful tool in the shed.

So, objectification might not lead to perceptions of women as inanimate objects but as different kinds of humans—ones that are capable of feeling but not thinking. To test this hypothesis Gray et al. presented participants with images of individuals and varied the amount of flesh shown in the pictures (the amount of “body focus”). In line with their hypothesis, seeing full bodies, as compared to just faces, caused ratings of agency to diminish but ratings of experience to increase. The same was true when naked bodies were compared with clothed bodies. Indeed, as the sexual suggestiveness of the images increased, perceptions of agency decreased and perceptions of experience increased accordingly.

While this might initially seem modestly encouraging in that the objectified are perceived as humans and not objects, there is a disconcerting side effect of perceiving entities as high on experience—we see them as more capable of being harmed and, therefore, as more in need of protection. The researchers demonstrated this in a final study that showed participants are less willing to inflict painful shocks on half-naked individuals as compared to clothed individuals. It seems that when we see bodies we tend to also see potential victims. And though victimhood might be endearing to some, it certainly won’t help win elections. 

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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