How Our Brains See Men as People and Women as Body Parts

Our brains either see an object when we look at it as a whole or as a collection of its pieces. Think about photo mosaics, which are composed of a huge number of little photographs that, when put together in a specific way, create a larger overall image: In fact, seeing the mosaic from both angles requires the use of two distinct mental processes.

According to a recent study, these two separate cognitive processes also influence how we perceive the basic physical differences between men and women. This finding is significant because it sheds light on why women are frequently sexually objectified.

Participants processed photos of men and women in significantly different ways in a series of studies, according to the study, which was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Perceivers tended to use “global” cognitive processing — the mental process by which a person is regarded as a whole — more when shown photos of men. The objectifying perception of anything as an assembly of its many elements, or “local” cognitive processing, was more frequently applied to images of women.

According to lead author Sarah Gervais, an assistant professor of psychology, the study is the one of the first to connect such cognitive processes to the objectification theory.

“Our mental representations of things like homes, vehicles, and other items are based on local processing. But when it comes to humans, global processing ought to keep us from doing that,” Gervais remarked. “We don’t dissect people into their component components, except for women, which is startling. Women were viewed similarly to how people viewed objects.”

Participants in the study were shown dozens of randomly selected pictures of fully attired, ordinary-looking men and women. Standing and with their eyes fixed on the camera, each person was displayed from head to knee.

Then, following a brief break, the participants saw two new images on their screens: One was the original image as it had been presented, while the other was a significantly altered version of the original image that included a sexual body component. Participants immediately responded when asked which of the two pictures they had previously viewed.

The outcomes were predictable: When displayed separately rather than in conjunction with the rest of a woman’s body, women’s sexual body parts were simpler to identify. Men’s sexual body parts, however, were more easily recognized when seen about their full bodies than when presented separately.

“We frequently hear that women are reduced to their sexual organs; the media is full of examples. This study goes a step further and discovers that this view extends to regular women as well,” added Gervais. “The study’s subjects were regular, everyday men and women… It was quite intriguing to see that when people observed regular men and women, they remembered the female body parts more vividly than their overall bodies.”

It’s also important to note that the observation’s participants’ gender had no bearing on the results. Men and women made up an equal portion of the participant pool, and they processed the bodies of each gender similarly: Regardless of their gender, perceivers viewed men more “globally” and women more “locally,” according to the researcher.

“We can’t only blame the men for this. This is how women see women, too, according to Gervais. “It might be connected to several purposes. Men might be interested in potential partners when they do it, while women might be more interested in comparing themselves. We do, however, know that they are both engaged in it.”

Would there be a remedy for the fundamental cognitive processes that cause a perceiver to diminish and objectify women? According to researchers, some of the study’s findings supported this. The sexual body part recognition bias appeared to be reduced when the experiment was changed to create a situation where it was simpler for participants to use “global” processing. In contrast to their numerous sexual body parts, women were more recognizable in the context of their entire bodies.

According to the authors, the research provides the first concrete evidence of the fundamental “global” vs. “local” framework and may offer a theoretical foundation for future work on more focused objectification.

“Our findings reveal people fundamentally process men and women differently, we are also showing that a very simple modification counteracts this impact and perceivers can be encouraged to see women worldwide, just as they do men,” Gervais stated.

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others