The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, discovered that both male and female subjects relied on “global” cognitive processing when looking at images of men but used “local” cognitive processing when it came to pictures of women.
Essentially, the global method means a person is perceived as a whole, while the local method situates the person as an object.
“Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on,” said Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the lead author of the study.
“Global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people. We don’t break people down to their parts – except when it comes to women…Women are perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed.”
In the study, which used an equal number of men and women, participants were presented with dozens of images of fully-clothed men and women shown from head to knee, standing, eyes staring straight into the camera.
After each picture, there would be a pause and then the volunteers would be presented with two new images on their screen: one was the original image, while the other was a modified version of the original image but one that just showed the groin area.
The participants had to indicate quickly which image they had seen before the two images were presented.
The results indicated that even though participants had all just viewed the head-to-knee shot of a woman, they tended to choose the body part photograph as the image they had just seen, while participants who had been shown pictures of men tended to choose the head-to-knee shot.
And regardless of the participant’s gender, women were more likely to be seen "locally" — in other words, as body parts.
"It could be related to different motives," said Gervais. "Men might be doing it because they’re interested in potential mates, while women may do it more of a comparison with themselves.
"What we do know is that they’re both doing it."