Why both men and women's eyes are drawn to women's bodies

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A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is suggesting that both men and women are guilty of objectifying females.

Because your brain perceives an object as being either a coherent entity or a collection of parts, you rely on two different cognitive processes — global and local scanning. And it appears that which of those processes you use depends on whether you're gazing upon a woman or a man. When you look at a woman, you see her as consisting of various body parts, but if it's a man, you tend to see him as a single whole.


To reach this conclusion, psychologist Sarah Gervais conducted a series of experiments in which participants consisting of both women and men were shown images of males and females. The pictures were of fully clothed, average-looking men and women who were shown from head to knee, standing, with eyes focused on the camera.


After viewing dozens of images, participants were then shown two new side-by-side images: One was an exact duplicate of a previously viewed image, the other a slightly modified version of the original showing a sexual body part. The participants were then asked which of the two images they had previously seen.

Once the results were in, the researchers noticed that women's sexual body parts were more easily recognized when shown in isolation and separate from the entire body. Men's sexual body parts, on the other hand, were more recognizable in the context of the entire body.


And the results held true for both the male and female participants.

Gervais says this shows that men and women use their "local" cognitive processes to identify men, and their "global" ones for females. As startling as it may sound, the study indicates that both men and women use the same method of visual processing to identify females as they do to other objects, such as cars and houses.


She theorizes that men may scan women in this way to assess potential mates, while women do it to compare themselves to other women.

The study clearly shows that there is an underlying cognitive mechanism behind the objectification of women — what the researchers call "objectification theory." While you might look at this study with a certain degree of despair, the true benefit of such a study is in how it can raise awareness to the issue. Knowing that your brain takes gender into account when looking at a person can help you understand why you're seeing a person in a certain light — and how you can change your behavior accordingly.


It's quite possible, for example, that these responses are re-enforced by social conditioning (i.e. the popular culture and media), and not something that's completely hardwired in our brains.

And in fact, a second experiment conducted by Gervais reaffirmed this idea. Participants were shown images of letters made up of a mosaic of tiny letters. So, for example, the letter H was made up of hundreds of tiny Ts. The participants were told to identify either the tiny letters (thus engaging local processing) or the big letter (requiring local brain action). The researchers discovered that the group which had engaged their local visual processes were less inclined to objectify women shortly thereafter.


In other words, the simple letter-mosaic task "swept away" the effect — an indication that it may be a simple case of mind over matter.

The research was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Source: Scientific American.

Photograph by Alex James Bramwell/Shutterstock.com. Inset image via University of Nebraska-Lincoln.