Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hard-Wired to Dehumanize?

There's a bit of a kerfuffle about a new study by Susan Fiske of Princeton that, according to the Guardian, shows men are hard-wired to objectify women. Young male volunteers were shown images of women in bikinis and their brains were scanned with MRI to measure their responses. Their scans showed activity in regions of the brain normally activated when using tools.

As Vanessa at Feministing points out, while the study corroborates a long-standing feminist contention - that ubiquitous images of scantily-clad female bodies encourage the objectification of women - arguments for the hard-wiring of men's responses can hurt women more than help them:
[S]uggesting that men are hardwired to objectify women is really dangerous, and for obvious reasons. Simply taking naked women out of the picture (figuratively and literally) is not going to resolve the problem, and implying that "men can't help it" will just be used to contribute to the same sexist customs and rape culture that we're fighting against.
However, even the Guardian's exceedingly shallow reporting reveals that the studies' findings are more complicated than that. Only men who scored high on a questionnaire measuring basic sexist attitudes had MRI scans indicating a lack of empathy toward the women whose images they viewed:
In the final part of the study, Fiske asked the men to fill in a questionnaire that was used to assess how sexist they were. The brain scans showed that men who scored highest had very little activity in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions that are involved with understanding another person's feelings and intentions. "They're reacting to these women as if they're not fully human," Fiske said.

(Source: The Guardian)
Hmmm. In other words, the MRI revealed what parts of the brain remain dormant when a man fails to perceive another person as a human. But does that prove hard-wiring? Perhaps, but only after years of socialization. The research subjects are college students. Their brains are the product of two decades' worth of learning about how the world works. The brain is an amazingly plastic organ, and its functions are not all inborn; they are shaped in response to environmental stimuli. The fact that not all men responded the same - and that objectification correlated with sexist attitudes - undermines the interpretation that all baby boys will inevitably grow up to regard women as objects. Upbringing and society must play a role.

How solid is this research? Figleaf frets that there's no original study available online to back this up, and he's right: the study has only been presented at a conference (the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago), and it's not yet published in any journal. So we can't dissect it properly.

On the basis of a report in the National Geographic, however, we can pinpoint some of the study's limitations: It was small, with only 21 experimental subjects. It only looked at hetersexual men (no women were tested at all). And all of the subjects were college students, which means that the sample would not measure responses of men at various stages of learning over their life course.

In one respect, the study is actually more disturbing than either Vanessa or figleaf notes (again, because the Guardian article was so flimsy). The sexist subjects didn't just regard women as tools to their pleasure; they went beyond mere objectification in to a much scarier realm. This comes out in how The Independent described the study's findings:

The study focused on a region of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex, just above the eyes, which, when activated seems to damp a man's tendency to express hostile sexist thoughts about women, Professor Fiske said. Men who express the strongest sexist tendencies tend to have a less active medial cortex. It becomes decactivated in men who are the most hostile to women, but only for women in bikinis, she said.

"So basically they are particularly likely to treat these women as objects, at least that is the interpretation of the data we have so far. It is a preliminary study but it is consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs as if they were responding to objects rather than people."

It was "shocking" to find that the pictures of scantily clad women deactivates the medial pre-frontal cortex, Professor Fiske went on. "The only other time we've observed the deactivation of this region is when people look at pictures of homeless people and drug addicts who they really don't want to think about what's in their minds because they are put off by them."

In other words, subjects prone to sexism didn't just objectify women; they dehumanized them.

That's a crucial distinction. We all objectify people we don't know well but find attractive. Women do this too: We look at someone and think to ourselves, "Yummy!" That's not a response to someone's stellar character or personality. But there's a big difference between one-dimensional appreciation of sexiness and reducing the object of your lust to less than human. It's only the dehumanizing response that nurtures rape culture and other potential violence.


John Pine said...

Is Susan Fiske, by 'dehumanising' men (turning them into dots in an MRI scan) getting revenge for our having ogled page three girls (second only to our beloved power tools)? Maybe a set of electrodes, strategically placed, connected to small implanted CPUs, could ensure that the men around her present with the 'correct' thoughts?

Sungold said...

If so, I'd like a remote control. :-)

Seriously, one of the problem of all medical and psychological research is that it inevitably objectifies its subjects. As a society we routinely accept this and take it for granted. However, I don't think it should remain unexamined.