The pictures of bikini-clad women activated brain regions associated with objects or “things you manipulate with your hands,” Fiske said. The students also remembered the photos of the half-naked women better than they did any of the others, she added, noting that the subjects remembered the bodies, not the faces, most clearly. Fiske said the results indicated that some men may objectify or dehumanize partially clothed women, though further research is needed to confirm these findings.
“We predicted these results — that there would be activation in the tool-use part of brain [when the men viewed half-naked women] — before the study,” Fiske said. “I remember Jennifer [Eberhardt] suggested it first about a year ago, and I said, ‘Oh, Jennifer, that’s disgusting. I can’t believe you’re predicting that.’ ”
Study participants were also asked to fill out a survey designed to measure how sexist they are. The researchers found that when the men whose surveys indicated that they were the most sexist saw the pictures of women in bikinis, they were least likely to activate a part of the brain associated with thinking about people’s minds and thoughts, Fiske said.
“I think [the study] does relate to the effects of having pornography and sexualized images of women around and in the media because they spill over into how people treat women in general,” Fiske said, adding that these images may dehumanize women and encourage men to see them as objects. “You have to be aware of the effect of these images on people,” Fiske explained. “They’re not neutral. They do have an effect on how people think about other women.”
Cikara said she agreed that the reactions observed in the study might be a consequence of society’s emphasis on sexualized female imagery.
“This research can certainly help to further our understanding of the effect of sexualized women, whether in advertising or in the office,” Cikara said, adding that “men can totally override this response.” She noted that men do not look at their wives or sisters in the same way that they look at a sexualized image of a woman on an advertising billboard.
The study also found that men’s perceptions of scantily clad women may be closely related to the ways people “dehumanize” groups from which they wish to distance themselves, such as homeless people and drug addicts, Fiske said.
Women may also see men as objects in some ways, the researchers added. “These findings are not unique to men. The results would likely have been similar for women, perhaps in terms of male status,” Cikara said.
“My friends who do evolutionary psychology would suggest that women orient toward guys with status and resources, but the research suggests that this particular thing is more likely to be true of guys,” Fiske noted.
Chloe Angyal ’09, co-editor of Equal Writes, a feminism and gender issues blog, said in an e-mail that she was not entirely surprised by the findings.
“[I]t’s certainly not uncommon for men to reduce women to body parts; objectification is the reason that men say ‘get some ass’ and not ‘get some fully three-dimensional human,’ ” she said. She added that women objectify men, though that is often considered less socially acceptable.
“The findings seem to confirm what women have been complaining about for decades as they walk past construction sites, though they do give a new, scientific basis to the social phenomenon of objectification,” Angyal said. “This research appears to provide evidence of a more hardwired, less socially constructed tendency to objectify women, which will make eradicating the problem that much harder.”