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Are you looking at me?

What goes on in our minds when we see someone naked? The more we see of a person's body the stupider they seem

by Matthew Hutson

Header brigit bardot
Brigitte Bardot posing for a fashion shoot in a studio, Paris, 1958. Photo by Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum

Matthew Hutson

is a science writer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and Psychology Today, among others. He is the author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking (2012). He lives in New York City.

3,000 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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In 2010, the editors at Vogue Paris made a design decision that could soon lead to a wide-sweeping change in French law. A spread in the December issue starred a model named Thylane Blondeau. In one picture, she was sprawled on a tiger-skin rug, her dress exposing one shoulder, as a jewel-encrusted leg props up a high-heel slipper and her heavily made-up eyes stare intensely into the camera. This would be a typical magazine fashion shoot if Blondeau had not been nine years old.

The photos caused outrage — 84 per cent of respondents in one French poll found them demeaning — and led the French politician Chantal Jouanno to write a parliamentary report entitled ‘Against Hyper-Sexualisation: A New Fight For Equality’. The report requested a ban on child-size adult clothing and on beauty pageants for children younger than 16. In September this year, the French Senate voted in support of the pageant ban; it awaits confirmation from the lower house. ‘At this age, you need to concentrate on acquiring knowledge,’ Jouanno told the Associated Press. ‘Yet with “Mini Miss” competitions and other demonstrations, we are fixing the projectors on their physical appearance.’

The US — home of the popular reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras — seems unlikely to follow France’s lead. Our focus on beauty and sexuality, even in children, does not bode well for the treatment of girls and women in general. A report from the American Psychological Association in 2010 notes that sexualisation leads us to value people only for their sexual appeal at the exclusion of other traits, encourages unwanted sexual advances, and causes objectification, wherein a person’s capacity to direct his or her own life is ignored.

Objectification has been defined in feminist literature to include several elements, including the denial of autonomy and the denial of subjectivity — we see the person as lacking self-determination and feelings. He or she becomes, in the viewer’s mind, an object, a ‘piece of meat’, devoid of any internal life.

At least that’s what we thought. Recent research, however, would suggest that there is a more complex, though no less disturbing, process at play when we objectify not only girls and women, but boys and men as well. In contrast to popular belief, when we ‘objectify’ we don’t treat people as objects with no intelligence or emotions of their own. Several notable psychologists are beginning to argue that, when we objectify someone, we don’t assume that they have less mind overall, but that they have a different type of mind.

We spend much of our day pondering other peoples’ minds. They can love us, hate us, help us, or harm us — but we can never experience them directly, a fact that drives the work of the psychologist Kurt Gray. In his Mind Perception and Morality Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the 32-year-old assistant professor began a research project into how we piece together incomplete data to build an idea of another person. This question led him to research attitudes toward persistent vegetative states, torture and judgments of guilt, robot-human interactions, belief in God, the fundamental structure of morality, and, most recently, objectification — the influence of embodiment on mind-perception. His findings offered what Gray calls ‘a significant twist on objectification’. What emerged was that we see the capacity for feelings, whether pleasure or pain or happiness or anger, as distinct from the capacity for intellectual thought and planning. Namely, that we treat those we objectify as less intelligent, yet simultaneously we endow them with a greater ability to feel things.

All of his work grew out of one anomalous finding. When I spoke to him, he told me that a couple years into his PhD at Harvard he ‘was running a silly survey on the moral rights of robots’, in which he asked individuals to make judgments of humans and machines, but didn’t find much that surprised him: robots deserve less moral rights than humans. No surprise there. But one of the case studies that his subjects were asked to judge was a person with mental disabilities. They rated him as having reduced moral responsibility compared with other people, but enhanced sensitivity to pain and pleasure. ‘And that’s a wild thing, right?’ Gray said to me. ‘Why should someone who is given less of a mind in some sense be given more of a mind in another sense?’

Naked porn stars are also seen as having less competence but more sensitivity than their clothed selves

At around the same time, Gray was conducting another study with his colleague Heather Gray (no relation) and his adviser Daniel Wegner, which was published as ‘Dimensions of Mind Perception’ in the journal Science in 2007. Participants were presented with 13 ‘characters’ (a man, a dog, a robot, etc), and were asked to rate the degree to which each ‘character’ had mental capacities such as joy, rage, or self-control. The researchers found that the capacities neatly clustered into two distinct categories — experience and agency, or what we might call sensitivity and competence. For example, babies and dogs were seen as highly sensitive (they were assumed to feel hunger, fear, and pain) but not very competent (they were considered to have little self-control, memory, or thought). God was competent but not sensitive. Robots were medium-competent, but not sensitive. Healthy adults were high on both.

Gray noticed that the findings of the two studies converged, which suggested that, when we assess others, we don’t see their amount of ‘mind’ as being on a linear spectrum: from, say, a lump of rock to a healthy adult. Instead, we perceive mind as having two distinct dimensions.

At the same time as Gray was doing this work at Harvard, Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher currently at Yale University, was independently exploring similar issues in mind-perception. In 2008, Knobe and Jesse Prinz, now professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, published the paper ‘Intuitions About Consciousness’, which found that people readily attribute intellectual states (such as deciding, intending, or believing) to a bodiless corporation, but not more emotionally felt states (such as experiencing an urge, vividly imagining, feeling pain). Their subjects might say ‘Acme Corp intends to release a new product this January’ but not ‘Acme Corp is getting depressed’. They clearly saw at least two categories of mind: the capacity for abstract cognition, and the capacity for subjective experience, or competence versus sensitivity. Knobe and Prinz’s explanation was that corporations don’t have bodies. Perhaps then, a body seems necessary for both physical sensation and emotion.

In 2008, Gray watched an online clip of Knobe debating embodiment and mind perception with Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, who studies belief in Cartesian mind-body dualism — the notion that consciousness or the soul can exist independently of the brain. Knobe was suggesting a new kind of mind-body dualism. He argued that we see part of the mind — sensation and emotion — as actually tied to the body rather than to the rest of the mind. Knobe and Bloom didn’t agree; they suggested an experimental challenge to settle the matter.

Soon after, Gray approached Knobe at a conference in New Hampshire and said he’d already done some unpublished research on the issue, with Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. In one experiment, subjects saw a photograph and a short description of a man or a woman. The photo showed either just the head or also the shirtless torso. When presented shirtless, targets were seen as having less competence. This is just what you might expect from research on objectification: we’re easily induced to see others as mere objects, pieces of meat without thoughts of their own. But it wasn’t that simple. Shirtless targets weren’t seen as devoid of all thought. They were actually seen as being more capable of emotions and sensations than their less exposed selves. They didn’t have less mental life but a different mental life. Objectification is apparently a misnomer. ‘I was completely taken aback by all of the results he had obtained,’ Knobe told me when I emailed him.

‘So, right there in that conference, we started talking about what would happen if people were exposed to more pornographic images,’ Knobe continued. Surely there was a limit, and eventually we would objectify people if they were sexualised enough. We would see them as objects devoid of feeling. To test this was a challenge. The problem was that the researchers needed a set of clothed and unclothed photographs, and they weren’t about to pose for the photo shoot themselves.

Luckily, just this had already been done in the book XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits (2004). The photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders had shot 30 stars, first fully clothed, then naked, in the same position and with the same expression. The researchers used these images in a series of experiments and, in 2011, Gray, Knobe, Bloom, Feldman Barrett, and Mark Sheskin, a research student at Yale, published the results as ‘More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It turned out that naked porn stars are also seen as having less competence but more sensitivity than their clothed selves. And when one actress was shown in an especially sexual pose, the trend only increased, presumably due to greater focus on her body and its pleasures. True objectification, as traditionally conceived of, just did not happen.

In most cases, thinking of a person as a body does not lead to objectification in a literal sense, in which the person becomes an object. Rather, he’s dehumanised — he becomes a sensitive beast

The research also looked at how embodiment affects how we dish out moral rights and responsibilities. In another experiment, individuals were given two character descriptions: one about Michael, who has double-jointed wrists, type-A blood, and a heart rate of 80 beats per minute; and Jeffrey, who remembers names by associating other words with them and creates a mental map before driving someplace new. They judged that double-jointed Michael would deserve less blame than Jeffrey for walking out on a restaurant bill but would suffer more if they were each mugged. In the minds of those questioned, Michael was more embodied, and he was judged less competent and more sensitive because of it. Focusing on his body made subjects think about his sensitivity to experience (including pain). And because of a sensitivity-competence trade-off in our perceptions, he was also seen as less in control of his actions and thus less morally responsible for them.

But if we think embodied entities lack agency, do we think disembodied agents have extra agency? Perhaps. Gray directs our attention to the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, a brilliant mind disenfranchised from his wayward anatomy due to motor neuron disease. We might presume extra luminance in the bargain. In Gray’s words: ‘We think he’s just all mind.’

The suggestion that reducing focus on the body actually increases attribution of competence needs some empirical fleshing out. But if this balance-scale relationship between agency and experience does exist (wherein embodiment weighs down the experience side), where does it come from? If you’re attributing more sensitivity, why wouldn’t you also attribute more competence, and if you’re attributing more competence, why wouldn’t you also attribute more sensitivity? The perceived trade-off might result from a general tendency to frame events as having a subject and an object — someone who does, and someone who is done to; we tend to distinguish between a mind that thinks and plans an action, and a mind that feels its effects, typically through the body. Usually they are not the same person, and so we assume that if you’re one, you can’t be the other.

In their 2011 paper, Gray and his co-authors suggest that the current conception of people as intuitive Cartesian dualists — those who see the mind as independent of the body — ­is wrong. The reigning idea might be that we think of the body as one type of stuff and the mind as another, but we actually don’t. Instead, their results suggest that we see the body together with some of the mind – the part that feels things – as one type of stuff, and the remainder of the mind — abstract cognition — as another. A sensitive body versus a competent mind. They say we’re Platonic dualists, as Plato believed our eternal minds knew the universe’s ideal forms before we became implanted in and corrupted by the body, which came with sensation and desire.

In most cases, thinking of a person as a body does not lead to objectification in a literal sense, in which the person becomes an object. Rather, he’s dehumanised — he becomes a sensitive beast. In the terminology of Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, the opposite of this competence-denying animalistic dehumanisation is mechanistic dehumanisation, in which someone is seen as lacking emotional warmth. Highly competent people might be susceptible to this treatment.

Seeing others as incompetent has well-documented consequences: discrimination, paternalism, and violence. Gray and colleagues found in their experiments that men and women were equally dehumanised (and dehumanised by male and female subjects equally) but in our culture women’s bodies receive greater attention, so they suffer this kind of dehumanisation more frequently.

Being seen as having more capacity for feelings might be a surprising benefit of receiving attention to your body. Focusing on a politician’s embodiment could make him or her seem warmer. But it has its downsides, too. He or she might be considered reactive and emotional, further reducing attributions of competence. And being seen as vulnerable to pain could induce overprotection and a reduction of freedoms, as in benevolent sexism.

Feminist theorists have given extensive thought to objectification — often in the context of pornography. It’s not universally assumed that men treat sexy models as devoid of feeling. ‘In pornography all sorts of emotional states and desires are imputed to women,’ says Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, who has written widely on the topic. ‘The point that feminists make is that it is a construct: far from being interested in what the real woman is thinking and feeling, men think of her emotions in terms of a stock scenario familiar from porn, and don’t inquire further.’ Rather than discerning her real desires, they project fantasised feelings, which often include the wish to be used. ‘It’s similar to the sort of objectification of slaves that is portrayed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ Nussbaum adds. ‘White owners impute to them all sorts of emotions but just not the ones they actually have.’

If we are to focus on our bodies, better to emphasise what we can do with them in pursuit of our own goals

But while men (and women) might consider the real or imagined feelings of a sexualised target, feminist theorists generally don’t propose that objectification actually increases the attribution of feelings over non-objectified individuals. Nor, in general, do they argue that it’s a cognitive phenomenon displayed equally in men and women, and equally toward male and female individuals. Gray’s work contributes something novel to this literature.

Some researchers — notably Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University — have explored what’s called benevolent sexism, the placing of women on a pedestal, where they’re cherished and offered special protection. Many men do see women as especially sensitive and vulnerable, but feminist theorists have not empirically tested the relationship of this view to stereotypes about women’s intelligence and self-control, nor have they discussed the common role of embodiment in both types of perception. Again, Gray’s research fills this gap.

Gray and his co-authors note a couple of situations in which you might want to see someone as a body. In the bedroom, focusing on your partner’s sensitivity to pleasure (or pain, if that’s what you’re into) will enhance your ability to please. Equally, for doctors and those working in palliative care, a greater awareness of your patient’s experiential body will help you calibrate pain management. One might also guess that if there were some way to make a corporation seem embodied (perhaps by using a bikini-clad spokesmodel?) then it might be seen as less competent but also less blameworthy when things go wrong.

Yet it doesn’t make sense to teach people from a young age that they are most highly valued as bodies. Sexualisation — resulting from beauty pageants or the general media landscape — leads girls and women (and sometimes boys and men) to be dehumanised by others, and it also leads to self-objectification, where that dehumanisation is internalised. Focusing on one’s worth to others as a body can lead to eating disorders, reduced self-esteem, and depression. Girls can also fall prey to sexual stereotypes, avoiding other, more intellectual pursuits.

If we are to focus on our bodies, better to emphasise what we can do with them in pursuit of our own goals — be they athletic achievement, expression through dance, or merely moving through the world with confidence, comfort, and good health. Better to be subjects for ourselves than the objects of others.

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