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60-Second Mind

Women as Sex Objects

A new study presented at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago shows that when men see photos of scantily clad women their brain registers the women as objects to be acted on. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

Please note: this podcast is longer than the usual one minute as it includes quotes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Do men objectify women? Well some say there may be a tendency, since there’s a booming business in pornography. But to answer the how, when and why men objectify women requires some science.

Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske presented findings from a new study this past Sunday, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago, where she and her colleagues compared, "...heterosexual men’s perceptions of scantily clad women, scantily clad men, and fully clothed men and women."

And what they found is the 21 male subjects had the best memory for photos of sexy bikini-clad women. No surprise. Then they had the men look at the photos while their brains were scanned and what she found was that, "...this memory correlated with activation in part of the brain that is a pre-motor, having intentions to act on something, so it was as if they immediately thought about how they might act on these bodies."

Fiske explained that the areas, the premotor cortex and posterior middle temporal gyrus, typically light up when one anticipates using tools, like a screwdriver. "I’m not saying that they literally think these photographs of women are photographs of tools per se, or photographs of non-humans, but what the brain imaging data allow us to do is to look at it as scientific metaphor. That is, they are reacting to these photographs as people react to objects."

Fisk also tested the men for levels of sexism and found a surprising effect those who scored high on this test, "...the hostile sexists were likely to deactivate the part of the brain that thinks about other people's intentions. The lack of activation of this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens. It’s a very reliable effect, that the medial prefrontal cortex comes online when people think about other people, see pictures of them, imagine other people."

"Normally when you examine social cognition, people’s aim is to figure out what the other person is thinking and intending. And we see in these data really no evidence of that. So the deactivation of medial prefrontal cortex to these pictures is really kind of shocking."

To be sure this is a preliminary study, and Fiske intends to follow up with a larger sample, but nonetheless she concludes, "...these findings are all consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs as if they are responding to objects and not to people with independent agency." Fiske suggested that if there are sexualized pictures of women in the workplace, there may be a spillover effect, perhaps influencing the way people perceive female colleagues.

—Christie Nicholson

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