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Objectification Theory: Does Being Ogled Make Us Less Smart?

Laurie and Debbie say:

When a blatantly silly or misogynist evolutionary psychology study turns out to have a sample size of 16 or 30, it’s easy to discard not only the study but the whole idea. For once, however, we’ve run into a study with too small a sample size (25 people) that we would love to see done on a statistically useful scale:

Study participants — 25 women ages 18 to 35 — were told they were recruited to provide information on “the impressions people form about others solely based on their carriage and style of dress.”

Each was videotaped for two minutes — first from the front, then from behind — while they walked up and down a hall. To capture the experience of having their bodies evaluated while their faces (which presumably provide a better reflection of their individual personalities) were ignored, they were filmed exclusively from the neck down.

For half the participants, the person doing the filming was male; for the other half, the camera was held by a woman. After the filming, each woman watched her video, reinforcing the experience in her mind. She then filled out questionnaires measuring her levels of Trait Self-Objectification (her overall propensity to view herself through the lens of others) and State Self-Objectification (her tendency to view herself through the lens of others when triggered by a specific event, such as being stared at).

To test their cognitive skills, the women were shown a series of random letters or numbers and instructed to reorder them (putting them in alphabetical order for the letters, in ascending order for the numbers). They completed 21 such tasks, which were presented in increasing order of difficulty.

The results: When women with a tendency toward viewing themselves through the lens of others were placed in a situation where they were objectified (that is, they were videotaped by a man), they made a greater number of mistakes on the cognitive test. They did just as well as other women on the easy initial tasks, but had trouble when the difficulty level went up.

We like the idea of using the objectification scales to analyze the cognitive data, because the underlying assumption is (gasp!) that women are not all the same and don’t all have the same reactions. We like the study design, though we’d look for see more analysis (rather than assumptions) about the difference between being filmed by a man and filmed by a woman. We would, of course, also look for an acknowledgment that gender is not binary … though we’re not likely to get that from this kind of work.

We both have the gut sense that the results could easily be accurate, that a full-scale study could bear this one out.

Here’s the reason we can’t believe it yet: with 25 women being studied, only 20% (that’s five women) “have a strong propensity toward self-objectification.” Actually, if that result were to be borne out by a larger study, that would be great news! If only 20% of women are high on the self-objectification scale, something good is happening. At the same time, this means that all the results in the article are based on five subjects’ results on one test. This isn’t even remotely enough to be useful.

According to the article, the researchers are recommending “a campaign of awareness and education.” We recommend some repeatable large-scale studies, and if the results repeat, then we’ll jump on the awareness and education bandwagon with the greatest of pleasure.

Thanks to Firecat for the pointer.

One Response to “Objectification Theory: Does Being Ogled Make Us Less Smart?”

  1. Janet Lafler Says:

    Unfortunately, this sounds like the kind of study that would be hard to do with a much larger sample. One of the reasons that pscyh studies have small samples is that they are labor-intensive and time-consuming. Participants usually have to be paid. Thus, the amount of labor, time, and money involved is directly related to the number of participants in the study.

    Also, I just wanted to point out that a larger sample is not necessarily a good sample. It’s extremely difficult to recruit a simple, random sample for this kind of study.

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