How our brains see men as people and women as body parts


When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.

A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women — and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.

How our brains see men as people and women as body partsThe research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. 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.

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. But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people,” Gervais said. “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.”

Also notable is that the gender of participants doing the observing had no effect on the outcome. The participant pool was evenly divided between men and women, who processed each gender’s bodies similarly: Regardless of their gender, perceivers saw men more “globally” and women more “locally.”

“We can’t just pin this on the men. 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.”

Would there be an antidote to a perceiver’s basic cognitive processes that lead women to be reduced and objectified? Researchers said some of the study’s results suggested so. When the experiment was adjusted to create a condition where it was easier for participants to employ “global” processing, the sexual body part recognition bias appeared to be alleviated. Women were more easily recognizable in the context of their whole bodies instead of their various sexual body parts.

Because the research presents the first direct evidence of the basic “global” vs. “local” framework, the authors said it could provide a theoretical path forward for more specific objectification work.

“Our findings suggest people fundamentally process women and men differently, but we are also showing that a very simple manipulation counteracts this effect, and perceivers can be prompted to see women globally, just as they do men,” Gervais said. “Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore.”


7 Responses to How our brains see men as people and women as body parts

  1. DG July 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    I was thinking the exact same thing. I too would like to see identical studies done with other cultures including without the influence of media. It is not yet truly a study of inherent cognitive processing, but perhaps instead social conditioning of our westernized culture.

  2. Trever Case July 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    I guess she’s saying that men and women are both born malicious; and I agree. There is no cure for human nature, and men have no monopoly on disgusting.

  3. Deven Kale July 26, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Kimberly, what does the possible maliciousness of men have to do with women being objectified by both men and women? I’m not trying to be insulting or rude, I’m genuinely curious about what link you see here because I don’t see it myself.

  4. Deven Kale July 26, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    My problem with this study is that the researchers seem to have failed to control for any environmental factors, or more specifically if the participants reacted this way because they’re trained to. This study seems to imply that women being objectified is a result of nature, but without more input from a control group that does not have the same media influences which encourage objectification of women, that conclusion seems highly suspect.

    Perhaps a partner study done in a less “westernized” area is what’s needed in order to confirm their findings. Considering the expense of traveling to such a place and living there safely I understand it’s unlikely, but to be sure that it’s an inherent quality of humanity such an undertaking seems rather necessary.

  5. M Odaca July 26, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    ceced:
    Is your reply to kimberly smiths facetious?

  6. cecev July 26, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    bull-fockin-shit. men are born malicious?! are you bloody retarded or just overly menstruated?

    it’s a surprising study, but it may make sense when you think about this: men naturally see women as body parts, because they are men. and women see other women as body parts, because they need to compete between eachother for men’s attention. so, yeah… “men are born malicious”…go back to your porno book and don’t try to comment on science news, dear, it’s hilarious.

  7. Kimberly Smiths July 26, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    I can’t believe this article…but tend to realize that men are born malicious.

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