A newly published study by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has found that while our brains process the image of a man as a whole person, it perceives women as an assemblage of parts, which could explain why women are so often the subject of sexual objectification.
The Daily Mail is reporting on the study which looked at the way the brain processes images depending on which gender is being viewed. The research, which was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that participants in a series of experiments processed images of men and women in vastly different ways.
For instance, when we look at an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts – sort of like how we would view a jigsaw puzzle before and after it is put together.
“When presented with images of men, people tended to rely more on ‘global’ cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole,” the Mail reports.
“Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of ‘local’ cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.”
“Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on,” said Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the study’s lead author.
“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 presented with dozens of images of fully clothed, average-looking men and women. They were then shown two new images – one was the original image and the other contained just a sexual body part from the original image. Participants then quickly indicated which of the two images they had previously seen.
The results were very consistent with women’s sexual body parts more easily recognized when presented in isolation than when they were presented in the context of their entire bodies. Men’s sexual body parts were recognized better when presented in the context of their entire bodies.
“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.”
Surprisingly, these findings were not just true for male viewers of the images. Female viewers also tended to see men more “globally” and women more “locally.”
Gervais believes men do this because they’re interested in potential mates, while women do it as a way of sizing up the competition.
“But what we do know is that they’re both doing it,” Gervais said.
Researchers are now hoping to work on a method to lesson these differences, which they hope could lead to limiting the objectification of women.
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