Do we see near-naked people as human beings or as mere objects?
That’s the question that researchers led by Philippe Bernard set out to answer. To do so, they showed participants pictures of men and women in sexualized poses, wearing a swimsuit or underwear, one by one on a computer screen.
But since pictures of people present a recognition problem when they’re turned upside down, while images of objects don’t have that problem, some of the photos were presented right side up and others upside down. After each picture, there was a second of black screen before each participant was shown two images and was asked to choose the one that matched the one he or she had just seen.
The researchers discovered that both male and female subjects recognized right-side-up men better than upside-down men, suggesting that they saw the sexualized men as people. On the contrary, the women in underwear weren’t any harder to recognize when they appeared upside down, indicating that the sexy women were consistently identified as objects.
In other words, both male and female participants perceived near-naked men as human beings, but could only see near-naked women as objects. You can read more about the study here.
What does this mean? Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities. This is done by thinking of women especially as only their bodies, either the whole body, or as fetishised body parts. You know, the kind or reporting that focuses on a female politician’s hairstyle, and her cleavage, while the focus for her male counterpart is on what message he is delivering.
The sexual objectification of women is hardly a new perception, but this study provides objective evidence to back up the theory.
Moreover, Heflick and Goldenberg (2009) have shown that focusing on targetsí appearance, rather than on their personality, could diminish the degree of human nature attributed to female targets but not to male targets (attribution of human nature is a critical dimension of social perception that allows people to differentiate humans from objects; Loughnan & Haslam, 2007). Furthermore, sexual objectification generally has more adverse consequences for females than for males.
Why am I not surprised at these findings? Maybe some of our politicians waging the War on Women should take a look at this study, in order to overcome their own sexist assumptions.
Photo Credit: thinkstock