08/10/2012 07:48 EDT | Updated 10/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Just Because Your Brain Objectifies Women Doesn't Make it Right


Bad news from the front. Cognitive psychologists have discovered that our brains reduce women to their sexual body parts, and treat those parts as objects. The data confirms what many of us have suspected all along: we objectify women without even thinking about it.

But does that mean that sexism is an inevitable result of our physiology? That's not so easy to answer.

First, the study. Sarah Gervais and her team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln submitted 48 undergraduate students, half male and half female, to a body-parts recognition test. The subjects were shown an image of a man or a woman, and then shown two nearly-identical images of the same person, with the waist or chest slightly modified in one of them. In some trials, the modified body part was integrated into the original, full-body image; in others, both the original and modified parts were shown floating freely.

Gervais found that both male and female subjects were better at identifying the correct men from the full-body images, and better at identifying women from the free-floating waists and chests. Based on what we know about image processing in the brain, this strongly suggests that images of men and women are processed using two distinct visual systems in the brain. We recognize men based on the spatial relationships between all their parts, similar to the way we recognize faces -- what's called global processing. But with women, our brains break them down into recognizable components, like their breasts or their hips, and use these as stand-ins for their visual identity. This local processing is typically what we use to identify objects or collections of objects, like buildings and machines.

Gervais' discovery of a gender recognition bias is particularly surprising, in light of what's known as the global precedence bias, which says we prefer to use the global system for processing unfamiliar visual scenes. As far back as 1977, pioneer researcher David Navon found that subjects showed a pronounced advantage in global over local processing, and reasoned that our brains' default mode is global processing. In other words, we usually see the forest before we see the trees.

Global precedence means we expect that when we see pictures of unfamiliar people, we will process them globally. This is true for faces of both genders, and for men's bodies. But with images of women's body parts, we automatically switch modes to start categorizing body parts -- which suggests that our brains have learned to treat women differently.

How and why did our brains learn to do that? Or perhaps more importantly, when did they learn to do it? If the gender recognition bias is evolutionarily old -- if our great ape ancestors were evaluating the reproductive fitness of women by the size of their breasts and hips -- then it would seem that sexual objectification of women in the media and popular culture is an inevitable result of our evolutionary programming. But on the other hand, if the bias is relatively new, it may be a result of our sexist culture, rather than a cause of it.

Another way to phrase the question is to ask how easy it is to alter the gender recognition bias. If it's part of a robust, inflexible cognitive system, like the fight-or-flight response or dopamine reward mechanisms, it's likely to be very old. But if we can observe it varying within an individual or society, then we know it's sensitive to change, and there's a good chance it showed up more recently. Scientists have a name for how deeply hard-wired a bioneurological process is: cognitive penetrability.

There are some good reasons to think that the gender recognition bias is highly penetrable. For one, people from different cultures choose different visual systems to process the same tasks. Jules Davidoff has shown convincingly that the Himba, a remote hunter-gatherer tribe in Namibia, are much better at local processing than most of us -- they can tell cattle apart that to our eyes would be indistinguishable. In fact the Himba may default to local processing when they see an object they don't recognize (which is the reverse of every other culture documented).

The most famous example of cultural differences in global and local processing is the popular belief that Westerners see the fish in the tank and Asians see the whole aquarium. There's an element of truth to this: in 2010, a team of researchers at the Australian National University compared global processing in native Asians, Caucasian Australians and second-generation Asian-Australians. They confirmed that Asians have a distinct advantage in global processing over Caucasians; but what was most interesting about the experiment was that second-generation immigrants -- who were for the purpose of the experiment genetically identical to native Asians -- showed intermediate skill compared to both native groups. Within only one generation, the immigrants' processing style had already started to shift to match their new social environment.

On its own, this is pretty strong evidence that global/local processing is shaped by one's culture, environment, and upbringing, rather than one's heritable traits. But there have also been observations of global/local processing differences in individuals. Global processing has been linked to positive mood, as well as various cognitive primes. One of Gervais' co-researchers found in a 2010 study that getting individuals to think about a one-night stand turned on local processing, but getting them to think about a romantic walk on the beach turned on global processing.

Switching from one mode to the other may really be as simple as thinking about what you're seeing differently, and a cultural shift in perspective may be enough to change whether we use local or global processing for a given task -- like identifying women. If that's true, it's unlikely that the gender recognition bias predates modern civilization. This is good news: it means that objectification isn't built into our biological makeup, and there is still hope for overcoming it. If we can change the way our culture sees women, we can change the way we do.