Thursday, 17 May 2012

Women as objects

The Association for Psychological Science has a piece claiming that people see sexy pictures of women as objects not people.

Perfume ads, beer billboards, movie posters: everywhere you look, women’s sexualized bodies are on display. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that both men and women see images of sexy women’s bodies as objects, while they see sexy-looking men as people. 

The research is based on a claimed similarity between the way we recognize sexy images of women and objects.

One way that psychologists have found to test whether something is seen as an object is by turning it upside down. Pictures of people present a recognition problem when they’re turned upside down, but pictures of objects don’t have that problem. So Bernard and his colleagues used a test where they presented pictures of men and women in sexualized poses, wearing underwear. Each participant watched the pictures appear one by one on a computer screen. Some of the pictures were right side up and some were upside down. After each picture, there was a second of black screen, then the participant was shown two images. They were supposed to choose the one that matched the one they had just seen. 

It's odd thing about psychology experiments - how often they seem to take certain cultural assumptions as given. To my mind, this kind of work is measuring what we could just as easily refer to as interest. The more interesting an image, the more quickly and accurately it is recognized even if a psychologist has turned it upside down. As to why the images may be interesting, well that is another issue, but I'm sure most non-psychologists have a pretty good idea.

But these particular psychologists have gone beyond interest. They claim that images of overtly sexy women are recognized in the same way that objects are recognized. The basis of this claim seems to be that inverted images of both are easier to recognize than inverted images of men, or women not overtly sexy.

Let us leave aside the question of how they selected the objects.

To my way of thinking, they still go too far - beyond the experimental observations and the basic idea that we recognize best those things in which we are most interested. Somehow the psychologists seem prepared to say that men and women fail to distinguish between inanimate objects and images of sexy women, although of course that isn't how it is expressed.

Obviously people do make the distinction, so how can psychologists say that the mode of recognition is the same? The answer to that question seems to lie in the test itself. The image inversion test defines a relationship between modes of recognition.

Going on to equate the way we recognize images of sexy women and objects - well that ought to be a weakness of the definition. Instead it is swallowed whole and as far as I can see the only reason is that it agrees with a cultural meme - women being treated as objects. Circular argument rooted in a definition - you see them a lot in psychology.

For me, cultural meme has invaded their thinking and a hidden definition has skewed their logic. What they are really highlighting is how extremely interested we are in (and incidentally familiar with) images of women in overtly sexual poses. But we knew that in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Well, take a look around their website, it will tell you all you need to know.

I know nothing about psychology but I can recognise drum-bangers when I see them. As for that high-pitched noise, maybe its a dog-whistle.

James Higham said...

I don't recall - and I'm sure it's the same with your good lady - that they've ever felt like objects in the arms. The lips were certainly not "object"ive.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I've never heard them called drum-bangers before (:

James - no they don't and fortunately most don't listen to this stuff.

Mark Wadsworth said...


Of course women are not objects, they are people, same as kids, men, whatever. And women are far cruder than men when they are looking at hunky male models in a state of undress.


A K Haart said...

Mark - I agree, but psychologists don't do shortcuts like that. They'd be out of a job.