Sexiness and Sweaters: The Psychology of Objectfication

Using these pictures, the fourth experiment of the study attempted to determine the relationship between perceived suggestiveness and perceived agency/experience. Courtesy of Dr. Kurt Gray, Dept. of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park.

Regardless of your chosen wardrobe, you have selected a certain amount of clothing to wear and, in turn, you have selected just how much skin to show off. Be warned, however; the simple decision of wearing a sweater or a V-neck, regardless of your gender, may significantly change the way you are perceived, as a mind or as a body.

Objectification has traditionally been seen through a very narrow field of terms. When we think of the word, most of us conjure up images of men viewing women as nothing but a body, dehumanizing them and divorcing them from their moral being. It is seen as the ugly end of a single continuum — that of viewing someone as a human to viewing them as nothing more than an object.

New research from University of Maryland psychologist Dr. Kurt Gray and colleagues from Yale University and Northeastern University, however, suggests that this traditional model for objectification is an oversimplified view of a much more nuanced phenomenon. “Objectification,” according to Gray, “is not about objectification, or making someone into an object, per se, but about giving them a different kind of mind. If you’re [objectifying] someone, [it’s been thought] you treat them as an object and strip them of their moral rights. Instead, we found the opposite.”

Through a series of six experiments, Gray tested various ways that people are perceived in respect to their appearance. While many of these experiments confirm the notion that we may perceive more scantily clad people as less competent, they also indicate that this decline in perceived competency is matched by a marked increase in perceived experience, as in a heightened sensitivity to pain, emotions, and feelings. This promotes a view that perceptions of a mind are distributive along two continua, not one.

For example, in one experiment, subjects were shown one of three images of the same woman in either a clothed, naked, or sensual pose. Participants were told to answer a set of questions, despite not knowing anything about the personality of the woman in the photograph. The questions were designed to ask subjects to evaluate the woman’s moral character, her sensitivity to pain, and her competency. The results demonstrated that as the sexual suggestiveness of the model increased, ratings of agency (competency, self-control) decreased, while ratings of experience (pain, desire, or fear, for instance) increased. The multidimensionality of perception therefore suggests a duality of objectification; by focusing on an individual as a body, we view them as less competent, but as more sensitive and emotional, while focusing on them as a mind, we perceive the reverse.

Results from the fourth experiment of the study, showing a decline in perceived agency and an increase in perceived experience with increasing suggestiveness of appearance.

The study also challenges the traditional perspective of objectification that views it as an exclusively harmful act. In fact, although a decline in perceived intelligence of semi-nude models was observed in the study, these models were also seen as more deserving of empathy and protection than their clothed counterparts, despite the fact that models adopted identical poses in each photograph. In the paper’s own words, “[the] data suggest that people who are seen as more of a body are harmed less than people who are seen as more of a mind. This contradicts one idea of objectification, whereby a body focus leads solely to harm.”

Underlying this tentatively positive observation, however, may be a more negative perception. “If objectification,” according to Gray, “makes you not appear not only less intelligent but also seemingly more worthy of protection, then it seems to go counter to what you want. You might feel more empowered … but, as perceptions go, people won’t perceive you as more powerful.” The benevolent impulse triggered by objectification of scantily clad people, therefore, may be just as unwanted as the perceptions of incompetence that mirror it.

On a final note, the research also suggests that men and women, for the most part, perceive and objectify each other in the same way. Mark Sheskin, a Yale graduate student and a co-author of the paper, noted that “objectification is often thought of as directed [against] women. We have much more advertising of scantily clad women than of men. Still, we have no reason to think that it is only directed to women.” While the historical trends of objectification have been mostly directed against women, Gray warns men that they are equally likely as women to be objectified if they dress less conservatively: “If you’re going to be the beefcake and you’re going to wear a tight shirt to show off your pecs, you’re also going to be viewed as less competent of a person.”

These pictures were used in one of the six experiments of the paper, to test how men and women are perceived from their faces and from their bodies.