An Object Lesson: Part 1

If you’ve ever argued with a self identified “rational, logical” person over the existence of things like patriarchy, odds are you cherish the times science backs up your claims. Of course, you also probably have had whatever studies you proffered dismissed out of hand as quackery, or worse, taken as proof of their own argument instead, usually some variation on the old “intellectuals are in a conspiracy to conceal the truth” trope.

This article was forwarded to me some time ago, and I sat on it thinking for an extended period. Some of that was on account of moving recently, needing to get place in order, and I also hoped to see another extended version on other science blogs. Eventually it did show up on Science Daily, just not with any significant additions, however it led me to find another article in a similar vein. These pieces started a long train of thought, which I need to unpack over more than one post, so the second article will be discussed more fully next time.

One thing they made me think about was a black hole. Astrophysicists had theorized about the existence of black holes for a good long while before enough evidence was discovered to create consensus. In social sciences, where the validity of entire disciplines seems constantly in question by large numbers of people and being certain of one’s findings is that much harder, it must feel similarly powerful to discover “scientific evidence” for things like sexism.

The use of scare quotes here isn’t intended to signify dismissal, but we are a place for skeptics, and the main reason I took so long to pick this up is because I had some concerns about the methodology that still aren’t fully resolved. To explain requires quoting a large portion.

 “The authors of this study predicted that participants would view sexy women as objects, but see sexy men as persons. What do we mean by viewing someone as an “object” versus a “person?” Research suggests that when we view a person, we pay attention to spatial configuration (e.g., when we view a person’s face, we look for all of the spatial relationships that define a face, such as having two eyes above the nose, as well as a nose above the mouth). However, when we view objects, we process them differently and do not account for spatial relationships among the object’s features. One consequence of this is that when an image of a person is inverted (i.e., when it is turned upside down), we have a hard time recognizing it because all of the expected spatial relationships are thrown off. This problem does not arise when we view objects, because our recognition of an object is not based upon spatial configuration—thus, it is just as easy to recognize an object when it is right-side up or upside down. In summary, when we see a person, we should recognize an upright image better than an inverted image; however, when we see an object, we should be equally good a recognizing it regardless of how the image is presented.” (emphasis added)

So not surprisingly, when testing college age men and women with the images, they found that recognizing images of “sexy women” was comparatively easier, whether they were inverted or not, and images of “sexy men” were more difficult to recognize when inverted. They conclude from this that people, regardless of gender, are more likely to perceive images of “sexy women” the same way they do objects instead of people, and infer from this that established patterns of objectifying women in the media is a strong candidate for why many of us do.

Often, and I believe very fairly, tests like these are called out for doing their work on college students, which, especially at respected research universities, are not exactly representative samples of anyone but… well, privileged college students for the most part. This time, I don’t see that as a huge issue.

There are other concerns I couldn’t put to rest as easily. How they’re defining “sexy” has to be the most obvious. If I had access to the academic databases for a direct look, I might be able to understand better, either to assent or give more knowledgeable criticism. If that doesn’t underscore how privilege plays a part here, I don’t know what could.

One way to resolve this is to just assume they mean “sexy” in the same way Madison Avenue thinks of sexy in all the ads out there, or media generally. They say this after all in their own abstract, that they “predicted” this outcome in large part because of established media and culture theories that posit objectification.

But what if that means they saw what they saw because they predicted they would? It’s a very unscientific question, I know, it misunderstands the whole methodology of advancing a hypothesis before testing, crucial in scientific method. If anything, the fact that many would interpret this as a very valid question goes a long way towards showing just how much of a trap the social sciences are in. They’re derided as soft sciences, or not sciences at all, and yet when they use methods common to “hard” fields, their proponents’ motives are called into question.

Part of the trouble in offering a study like this to those who resist understanding objectification is that the study’s conclusions take as a given that objectification of the female body is real, widespread, and long established. The kind of people we so often have to argue with, however, actually believe that objectification is a two way street, that men are as objectified as women, and that’s if they aren’t just plugging their ears and saying it ain’t real at all.

Using Toulmin argument analysis, it is surprisingly easy to demonstrate just why so many perfectly rational arguments fail to convince. It doesn’t say much about how we evaluate evidence, but it does give a simple structure for parsing an argument. The study we’re looking at certainly makes an argument. It’s logically valid, sound, and well qualified too (meaning it does not extend its claims beyond the evidence). I find it fairly compelling, and at the same time have total confidence that it won’t change anyone’s mind whatsoever.

I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong for the same reasons I think the study is basically solid and good science. However, the same patterns of objectification which I want pointed out and deconstructed like this are also the force which, I believe, insures the closed minded against the threat of actually learning something.

The folks who need to hear this most are also the least inclined to place value in the findings of psychologists (especially when they challenge their prejudices). The least likely to acknowledge any kind of power differential between men and women. The most likely to perceive, and thus defend, benefits they get from the status quo. They don’t trust the “backing” of the claim, they suspect the evidence, and they completely reject the premise. In short, it’s like trying to argue with those who assume from the start you’re a liar.

That doesn’t mean the study is worthless. I would love to see it repeated, especially if it were much broader and included data on how people identified ethnically, religiously, and obviously I want them to show me the queers. In case anyone’s working on that, I make my own prediction, that results would still be largely the same. I figure it’s similar to the famous doll test, findings from which helped Thurgood Marshall win Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. A hegemonic idea can penetrate all minds relatively easily, even when, for many, that idea promotes self-hatred.

We find black holes by looking for how light is warped by their gravitational pull. Perhaps then we’re right to look for evidence of objectification, or other toxic psychosocial phenomena by looking for how our own perceptions are warped.

Or maybe we just have a rational, but entirely incorrect theory. We’ll pick this up next week.

Featured image is a simulated view of a black hole in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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Former professor of argument and rhetoric, current sex worker, performance artist, and novelist. I enjoy queering up the fantasy genre, learning and growing fitter, and exploring topics like language and epistemology.


  1. May 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm —

    Great analysis. I’ll be bluntly honest: I’m always weary of psychological studies. I share your concern with how the populations always seem to be college students and how they usually try to generalize to the entire world based on that population.

    Another thing I’m uncomfortable with is attributing quantitative analysis to explaining the “why” of human behavior. I think something that would strengthen this study would be some qualitative methods, otherwise it just appears to me as the authors projecting their expected explanations onto statistical data.

    I am wondering something about this study: How do they account for the myriad ways women’s bodies are presented in the media compared to men’s bodies? I think it might be an interesting question to look at. Does the ubiquitous nature of women’s bodies in all sorts of shapes and configurations make it easier to recognize them when the images are inverted? How much of this is training based on exposure to media images of women’s bodies? How can they move to a linkage of body inversion to objectification without examining this? A cross-cultural study could help shed light on this question.

    Of course, I’m not saying that objectification of women’s bodies doesn’t exist. I’m just unsure about this particular hypothesis and explanatory framework.

    Looking forward to part two! =)

  2. May 24, 2012 at 2:45 pm —

    There are other concerns I couldn’t put to rest as easily. How they’re defining “sexy” has to be the most obvious. If I had access to the academic databases for a direct look, I might be able to understand better, either to assent or give more knowledgeable criticism. If that doesn’t underscore how privilege plays a part here, I don’t know what could.

    I took a look at the full paper, it has what appears to be a sample image of both the male and female images. Apparently “sexy” means “in their underwear,” and possibly also means in suggestive poses, though the sample size of one picture makes it hard for me to judge that.

    This opens up a lot of questions for me, though: What is it about these pictures that triggers the “women as objects” wiring? Is it the poses the women are in? The amount of exposed flesh? And of course, there’s the whole nature-vs.-nurture question of what leads to this. I would hope that the answer is that the preponderance of sexualized women used as decoration has trained people to not see them as people, but it’s hard to test that.

    • May 25, 2012 at 1:31 am —

      our wonderful admin gave me a peek at the same just today while i was managing other work, and i was kinda struck, yeah. They had the appearance, to me, of fitness models, which is strangely specific…

      goodness knows i agree with all you point out here, and it’s what keeps gnawing at me when trying to take these results as “scientifically significant” of… something?

      in any case, many thanks for the extra perspective, and glad i ain’t alone in my reading!

  3. May 25, 2012 at 8:08 am —

    I linked to this on another forum that’s given me a whole heap of grief for ‘being brainwashed into thinking women are people’.

    They immediately concluded this was absolute proof that women and men think differently, and that I am therefore wrong.

    • May 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm —

      Why do you continue to visit a forum like that? Sounds like a cesspool. =P

      • May 26, 2012 at 2:25 am —

        It’s the only Australian NBL forum on the entire internet, as far as I know.

  4. […] In the last piece, I was considering the methodology of tests meant to discover the impact of sexist words and actions upon people’s behavior and perceptions, or uncovering the nature of those perceptions. Ultimately, I believe they represent good science, do not believe they will change anyone’s mind, but still allow room for doubt on both counts. […]

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