Reduced neural empathy for women wearing revealing clothes

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The participants watched women being rejected in a ball-passing game (the black blocks over their eyes did not appear in the actual study); from Cogoni et al 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Any context that encourages us to focus on a person’s body, more than their mind, is said to lead to objectification, such as when, in a previous era, a Formula One fan looked upon an attractive “grid girl” dressed in revealing clothes.

Perhaps the most serious concern about objectification is that it can lead us to disregard the rights and experiences of the objectified person. For instance, past research has shown that we’re more inclined to blame a rape victim depicted in a bikini, and more willing to (hypothetically) administer painful tablets to men and women shown wearing swim wear, rather than fully clothed.

Now a study in Cortex has taken things further by showing that volunteers’ empathy-related brain activity was diminished when they saw an objectified woman suffering social rejection, as compared with a woman who wasn’t objectified.

Carlotta Cogoni at the University of Trento, and her colleagues scanned the brains of 36 young adult participants (including 19 women) while they played or watched a simple ball-passing game over the internet. The other two players were supposedly located elsewhere, but really the games were mostly pre-programmed. When the participants played, they passed the ball back and forward with two other people depicted only by their hands on-screen. Each game lasted about 18 seconds, and during some games, the participant was completely ignored by the other players.

Most important were the games in which the participants were mere spectators, and they could see one of the three female players at the centre of the screen, either dressed in trousers and sweatshirt and light make-up, or “sexually objectified” – wearing a short dress, high heels and heavy make-up. Two research assistants performed this role in different versions of the game, switching their clothing and make-up to appear objectified or not (questionnaires after the study confirmed that the women were considered sexier but less intelligent, and less capable of agency when depicted in the objectifying context).  

When the participants were playing the game and they were ignored by the other players, this showed up in their brains, in terms of increased activity in areas involved in physical pain, such as the somatosensory cortex. When they saw a woman in trousers and sweatshirt being ignored by the other players, this was also reflected in the participants’ brains, in terms of increased activity in areas involved in emotional pain (such as anterior insula and anterior middle cingulate cortex) and taking other people’s perspective (medial frontal cortex). Crucially, activity in these regions – which the researchers believe reflects the neural basis of empathy for social pain – was lower when the participants, male and female, saw an objectified woman rejected by the other players, compared with when they saw a non-objectified woman rejected.

The researchers also asked their participants to report what emotions, positive or negative, they were feeling at the end of each game, and when they were spectators, to report what emotions the woman at the centre of the screen was feeling. In fact no differences emerged for negative emotion following social rejection: when the woman at the centre of the screen was rejected by the other players, the participants said they thought she was feeling just as much negative emotion whether she appeared objectified or not (somewhat contradicting the neural evidence). Intriguingly, however, during the fair games without social rejection, the participants attributed less positive emotion to the objectified woman, than they did to the non-objectified woman (this could be due to objectification or perhaps the participants simply thought it was probably less fun to play ball in a cocktail dress than trousers).

The researchers’ ultimate aim is to better understand “gender-based violence” which they say “disproportionately affects women”, and “constitutes an extensive human rights abuse that the modern society cannot afford to overlook”. They believe their demonstration of reduced neural empathy toward an objectified woman experiencing social rejection “may indicate a possible mechanism behind the motivation of gender-based violent behaviour”. They added that the fact that their female participants also showed reduced neural empathy toward objectified women is consistent with gender violence entailing “not only active participation, but also passive acceptance or compliance and therefore involving both men and women behaviours”.

However, critics may point out that in fact the participants did show empathy towards the women wearing revealing clothes – after all, they attributed just as much negative emotion to them when they were rejected as they did to non-objectified women – and therefore it really doesn’t matter what neurons were firing in their brains. Or should we trust recordings of brain activity over a person’s subjective account of what they believe and feel?

A more political point is that this study hasn’t shown that viewing objectified women led to less neural empathy for all women. The study actually wasn’t set up to detect this effect, but certainly the researchers documented evidence of heightened neural empathy for the non-objectified women, which would appear to undermine the arguments of some feminists that when women choose to perform roles in which they are objectified, such as working as “grid girls” or models, that this contributes to the objectification of all women.

Reduced empathic responses for sexually objectified women: An fMRI investigation

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “Reduced neural empathy for women wearing revealing clothes”

  1. More reductionist rubbish purporting to “explain” complex human emotions , behaviour and interactions. ” Neural Empathy”? What ?

  2. The “objectified” part is a bold assumption full of gender ideology rubbish. Perhaps it’s just a matter of sexual rank. A nicely dressed woman has a higher sexual rank and that causes resentment and jelousy.

  3. Great example of what Dan Dennett calls “greedy reductionism” Blood flow images of the brain are the new Rorschach test, or is it tea leaves in a cup?

  4. So, while I think this kind of research revelatory of very little, perhaps the researchers failed to parse the data properly. Did the researchers factor in that both men and women feel pleasure at the sight of an attractive woman? And that pleasure reduces pain? Experience enough pleasure and pain can shut off almost entirely. What’s more, men are much more likely to rush to the aid of an attractive woman, which suggests that sympathy is still at work even if “empathy” is reduced. Pleasure leading to increased sympathy. Hmmm. Yeah, reductionism plagued by ambiguity.

    But again, this kind of research tells us almost nothing.

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