We look at women the same way we look at houses and sandwiches: as composites of attractive parts.
PROBLEM: Few would argue that the objectification of women is a real thing -- and a real problem -- but as yet there's been no cognitive explanation for it in a literal sense. Do we really look at women differently than we do men, and are they actually objectified in the eye -- and brain -- of the beholder?
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METHODOLOGY: Images of average, fully clothed individuals (read: no supermodels in bikinis) were quickly flashed before the eyes of participants. After each one, the participants would then be shown two side-by-side images that zoomed in on one, "sexual" aspect of the individual (for example, a woman's midriff) and asked to identify the version that hadn't been modified. The experiment was also reversed, so that participants first looked at a specific part and then had to identify it in the context of an entire body. The test was designed to clue researchers in on whether the participants were using global or local cognitive processing while looking at the images -- in other words, whether they perceived the individuals as a whole or as an assemblage of their various parts.
RESULTS: Regardless of gender, participants consistently recognized women's sexual body parts more easily when presented in isolation. Men's sexual body parts, on the other hand, were more memorable as part of their entire bodies.
CONCLUSION: The cognitive process behind our perception of objects is the same that we use when looking at women, and both genders are guilty of taking in the parts instead of the whole. When we look at men, we use global processing to see them more fully as people.
The full study,"Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias," is published in the European Journal of Social Psychology .
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