Study subjects who focus on a person’s body rather than his or her mind rank that person as more experienced and more sensitive to emotion and pain
Scientific American Editor’s note: The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
When meeting someone for the first time, your impression of that person may be different if you meet that person at a formal dinner party, a cocktail party, or a pool party. These settings typically influence how the person dresses and how much skin they expose. Whether you consciously pay attention to a person’s exposed skin or not, focusing on their body may have unintended consequences.
We often assume that focusing too much on a person’s body and physical characteristics objectifies and dehumanises that person. A 2012 study in Psychological Science showed both men and women viewed other women portrayed as “sexy” as objects.
But it is less clear what takes place psychologically when we focus on a person’s body and the consequences of objectification. A team of researchers, led by Paul Bloom at Yale University, conducted a series of studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, to determine if focusing on a person’s body alters perception of that person, and if it leads to perceive that person differently and whether those perceptions can have benefits.
The naked truth
In the first study, researchers tested whether focusing on a person’s face or body influenced perceived capabilities related to agency, which includes factors such as self-control, acting morally, and planning, and the person’s ability to have experiences, such as pleasure, hunger, and desire. Study participants received a brief description (“On weekends, Erin/Aaron likes to hang out with friends.”) along with a picture of Erin/Aaron’s face only, or a picture of face and their unclothed upper body (Erin wore a bikini, Aaron was bare-chested).
Participants rated pictures by answering the following question, “Compared to the average person, how much is this person capable of X?” The results indicated that participants who saw body-focused pictures perceived the person pictured as having more experience and less agency. Thus, participants did not fully dehumanize participants, but rather saw them as having less control, but also saw them as more sensitive to emotion and pain.
Next the researchers increased the amount of flesh participants saw by getting perceptions of naked vs clothed people. To do this, the researchers used ten sets of professionally photographed pictures featuring an adult film actor posing for a picture from thighs on up with clothes and without clothes (genitals were blurred). These photos were an ideal comparison because the two pictures were identical, same lighting—same pose and same expression, but one was with clothes and the other without. More than 500 participants from many countries rated a single picture on the same agency and experience items as the first study. Just like before, participants rated naked participants as having more experience and less agency compared to clothed participants.
Original publication The Conversation on December 4, 2013
Posted on NatCorn 21st February 2021
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