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Sum of the parts? How our brains see men as people and women as body parts

Study finds that both genders process images of men, women differently

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.

The 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."

Sarah Gervais | EurekAlert!
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