Woman or tool?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske took brain scans of heterosexual men while they looked at sexualised images of women wearing bikinis. She found that the part of their brains that became activated was pre-motor – areas that usually light up when people anticipate using tools. The men were reacting to the images as if the women were objects they were going to act on. Particularly shocking was the discovery that the participants who scored highest on tests of hostile sexism were those most likely to deactivate the part of the brain that considers other people’s intentions (the medial prefrontal cortex) while looking at the pictures. These men were responding to images of the women as if they were non-human.

I’m not particularly shocked that the hostile sexists were the most prone to this! From here. (Thanks, Mr Jender.)

6 thoughts on “Woman or tool?

  1. I wouldn’t put too much weight on this kind of data. Pre-motor cortex does lots of things other than being involved in grasping tools (so far as I can, in any case, it is no more involved in grasping tools than in grasping anything else). It is involved in rule-learning, eye movements and lots of other things besides.

  2. I am not surprised by this, as I was once a very attractive woman, and the reaction and treatment I got from men told me I was for their pleasure and that only. now as an older less attractive woman I am for convienience, I am around to meet needs, sexual, food clean house, care for dogs and parents, thats if. women are tools to men, anyone surprised by that is up in the ivory academic tower. OK a little bitter, yup. had a very bad AM

  3. I’d be curious to know whether the same thing happens when presented with real people instead of images, and what happens when it’s hetero women looking at men or non-hetero men and women looking at men and women. What did the control groups look like?

  4. This post has been circulating on Tumblr over the past week or so, so it’s hard to be sure, but this seems to be the original paper: Cikara, et al., “From Agents to Objects: Sexist Attitudes and Neural Responses to Sexualized Targets,” J Cog Neuro, 23:3, 540-551.

    The paper reports two studies, which seem to be jumbled together in the post. The first is an implicit association test, looking at the associations between sexualized females/clothed females and first-person/third-person verbs (“I push” vs. “she pushes,” I think). This study had 24 female and 31 male participants. The authors report several null results (no statistically significant differences in the analyses), and a significant correlation in men between Hostile Sexism and faster responses to sexualized/first-person associations. In the discussion, the authors interpret this as suggesting “that sexualized women are more closely associated with being the objects, not the agents, of action as compared to clothed women, but only for men who possess hostile sexist attitudes.” The small sample size and the fact that they looked for several statistically significant differences before finding this one gives reason to take these findings with a grain of salt.

    The second study used a sample of 19 heterosexual male undergraduates. That sample alone should be reason enough to disregard this study. But I’ll report it anyways. They put these young men under a fMRI and showed them 20 images each from four classes: sexualized female, clothed female, sexualized male, clothed male. They identify various brain regions that are correlated with viewing the different classes of images and Hostile Sexism scores. I might be missing it, but I don’t see anything like a claim that these are “areas that usually light up when people anticipate using tools.” They do say this about the medial prefrontal cortex: “Previous work has shown decreased activation of mPFC to the most negatively regarded, typically avoided outgroups (e.g., homeless people, drug addicts; Harris & Fiske, 2006). Here we demonstrate [sic] decreased mPFC activation to a group to which men feel especially attracted and are least likely to avoid …. [T]he current findings suggest a common neural response related to diminished attributions of mental states.”

    All of their statistically significant findings relate only to Hostile Sexist heterosexual men looking at sexualized women.

  5. Thanks for setting the record straight, Dan.

    But I’m surprised no one raised the alternative hypothesis that men’s brains respond to tools as though they were essentially human (which is something I’ve anecdotally observed in certain men).

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