In the social network era, perception management preoccupies many people; posting a semi-nude selfie sends a very different message than being tagged in a photograph at the library. A team of researchers discovered that managing others’ perceptions may begin with whether we place our bodies in the foreground of our photographs — as well as at the center of our sentences and self-descriptions. Their article, which explores how we see other people, appears online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


“Centuries ago, Immanuel Kant (1779) argued that ‘sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry,’” the authors, led by Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, wrote in their recent study. “Kant’s proposal has been adopted and extended by contemporary feminist scholars, who argue that objects of sexual desire are seen as mindless physical objects, a phenomenon known as objectification.”

Rejecting this argument of objectification, the researchers argue that a viewer looking at another person is really balancing two competing dimensions of “mind perception,” namely: agency and experience. Seeing another individual, a viewer endows that person with a certain level of agency (the capacity to act, plan, and exert self-control) as well as with a certain level of experience (the capacity to feel pain, pleasure, and emotions). Instead of wholesale objectification, then, the viewer whose attention is focused on the body of another, perceives that individual as having greater ability to experience than to act. In the researchers' words, a "bodily focus" induces a “redistribution of mind” in the viewer.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted six experiments. One experiment included photographs of people focusing on either their face or their unclothed upper body (with the woman wearing a bikini top). With this image, participants were given a brief description (identical for all photographs), and then asked, “Compared to the average person, how much is this person capable of X?” The researchers found that participants who saw body-focused pictures perceived the person pictured as having less control, but also having greater sensitivity to emotion and pain. In short, participants did not fully objectify participants, they simply saw them as having different capacities. In another study, where the photographs featured either clothed or naked models (genitals blurred), the results were the same. The participants, more than 500 students from around the world, rated the naked models as having more experience and less agency compared to photographs of the same models wearing clothes. The researchers next explored whether their results would hold true if participants received only a verbal description of another person.

It’s All in Your Head

For this conceptual experiment, participants read a description of two different men. One description focused on the body (for instance, he is double jointed, has type A negative blood, and his heart beats at about 80 beats/minute), the other on his mind (for example, he remembers names by associating them with other words, and when he is driving somewhere new, he creates a mental map). Next participants were asked to identify which man would be more to blame if he skipped out on a restaurant bill, and "Who would suffer more harm from a mugger?" Participants said the man who had been described in physical terms was both less to blame for not paying a bill and more capable of being hurt than the man who had been described in mental terms.

Meanwhile, another team of scientists, who conducted their study in Belgium and the U.S., decided to explore what exactly it means to view women as objects. They based their work on past research which found that humans (actually, pictures of faces and body postures) are more difficult to recognize when inverted than when upright, whereas object recognition is not affected by inversion. To understand whether sexualized women are viewed as objects, they hypothesized sexualized female bodies would be recognized equally well when inverted as when upright (object-like recognition), whereas sexualized male bodies would be more easily recognized when up-right rather than when inverted (person-like recognition).

After showing 78 male and female students photographs of sexualized men and women, the inversion effect emerged only when participants saw males; the participants found it more difficult to recognize the upside-down photographs of a particular man. When it came to the photographs of women, however, participants, both men and women, more easily recognized the female model. “This suggests that, at a basic cognitive level, sexualized men were perceived as persons, whereas sexualized women were perceived as objects,” wrote the authors in their study.

Two studies, then, come to strikingly different conclusions about how we perceive others and the possibility of objectification. The differences in experiments and methods could easily have led to these divergent conclusions. In the latter experiment, participants were required to offer only a gut reaction based on photographs, whereas in the former series of experiments, participants were expected to express much more involved reactions. The deciding factor in many of our perceptions may very well have more to do with situation than with appearance.

Sources: Gray K, Knobe J, Bloom P, et al. More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2011.

Bernard P, Gervais SJ, Allen J, et al. Integrating Sexual Objectification With Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis. Psychological Science. 2012.

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