When men and women look at sexy ads depicting women in their underwear, their brains process them as objects, not people, a new study suggests. Interestingly, men and women see men in their underwear as people.
This reaction, called sexual objectification, has been well studied, but most of the research is about looking at the effects of this objectification. The new study, published in the May 2012 issue of the journal Psychological Science, gets a grip on what humans actually do objectify — and finds that both men and women view images of sexy women’s (but not men's) bodies as objects.
"What’s unclear is, we don’t actually know whether people at a basic level recognize sexualized females or sexualized males as objects," study researcher Philippe Bernard, of the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, said in a statement. "What is motivating this study is to understand to what extent people are perceiving these [images] as human or not."
Psychological research has worked out that our brains see people and objects in different ways. For example, while we’re good at recognizing a whole face, but just part of a face is a bit baffling. On the other hand, recognizing part of a chair is just as easy as recognizing a whole chair.
One way that psychologists have found to test whether something is seen as an object is by turning it upside down. Pictures of people present a recognition problem when they’re turned upside down, but pictures of objects don’t have that problem.
Bernard and his colleagues used a test where they presented pictures of scantily clad men and women in sexualized poses. Each participant watched the pictures appear one by one on a computer screen. Some of the pictures were right side up and some were upside down. After each picture, there was a second of black screen, and then the participant was shown two images. They were supposed to choose the one that matched the one they had just seen.
People recognized right-side-up men better than upside-down men, suggesting that they were seeing the sexualized men as people. But the women in underwear weren’t any harder to recognize when they were upside down — which is consistent with the idea that people see sexy women as objects. There was no difference between male and female participants.
We see sexualized women every day on billboards, buildings, and the sides of buses and this study suggests that we think of these images as if they were objects, not people. The next step, Bernard said, is to study how seeing all these images influences how people treat real women.