When observing an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as ‘a collection of its parts’.
Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which participants were presented with images of men and women.
The experiment showed that people when viewing images of men tended to rely more on ‘global cognitive processing’, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole.
In the case of images of women, participants rely on objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts termed ‘local cognitive processing’.
The study is the first to link such cognitive processes to objectification theory, said Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study’s lead author.
“Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on,” she said.
“But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people.
“We don’t break people down to their parts – except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed.”
In the study, participants were randomly presented with dozens of images of fully clothed, average-looking men and women.
Each person was shown from head to knee, standing, with eyes focused on the camera.
After a brief pause, participants then saw two new images on their screen: One was unmodified and contained the original image, while the other was a slightly modified version of the original image that comprised a sexual body part.
Participants then quickly indicated which of the two images they had previously seen.
The results were consistent: Women’s sexual body parts were more easily recognized when presented in isolation than when they were presented in the context of their entire bodies.
But men’s sexual body parts were recognized better when presented in the context of their entire bodies than they were in isolation.
“We always hear that women are reduced to their sexual body parts; you hear about examples in the media all the time.
“This research takes it a step further and finds that this perception spills over to everyday women, too,”Gervais said.
‘The subjects in the study’s images were everyday, ordinary men and women … the fact that people are looking at ordinary men and women and remembering women’s body parts better than their entire bodies was very interesting.’
The team also found both men and women have the same issue, and that regardless of their gender, perceivers saw men more ‘globally’ and women more ‘locally’.
“We can’t just pin this on the men,” said Gervais.
“Women are perceiving women this way, too,” Gervais said.
“It could be related to different motives.
“Men might be doing it because they’re interested in potential mates, while women may do it as more of a comparison with themselves.
“But what we do know is that they’re both doing it.”
The team now hopes to work on a method to lessen the differences, which they hope could help limit the objectification of women.
“Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore,” said Gervais.