There’s been a lot of buzz about a new study in Psychological Science which suggests that people of both genders view men as people but women as objects. It’s a small sample size, and so worth taking with a grain of salt. But the science behind the study’s setup is interesting as a potential explanation for some of the more distorted depictions of women we see in popular culture.
The study, conducted by Philippe Bernard, Sarah J. Gervais, Jill Allen, Sophie Campomizzi and Olivier Klein, is based on a fairly simple idea: we can recognize objects easily when we see them upside down, but not people. So “if sexualized women are viewed as objects and sexualized men are viewed as persons, then sexualized female bodies will be recognized equally well when inverted as when upright (object-like recognition), whereas sexualized male bodies will be recognized better when upright than wheninverted (person-like recognition).” When the researchers briefly showed subjects pictures of a man shirtless but wearing shorts upside down, they correctly identified him as a human man 73 percent of the time, while they recognized an upside down picture of a woman in panties and a bra correctly 83 percent of the time.
Apparently, part of the reason women are easier to recognize even when presented upside down is that “analytic processing, which is involved in object recognition, does not take into account spatial relations among the stimulus parts.” That would explain why comic book artists can get away with drawing hugely distorted images of women’s bodies — as long as the “stimulus parts” are all there, we’re getting the basic message that this is a lady. Fascinatingly, the researchers also cite a study that suggests that “focusing on targets’ appearance, rather than on their personality, could diminish the degree of human nature attributed to female targets but not to male targets.” I wonder if that’s because, as we’ve discussed some this week, showing men as strong implies capability and capacity, which can be extrapolated back into personality. But showing women as consumable tells us things about how we perceive them and what we want from them, not about who they actually are.