Study suggests posture — not revealing clothing — is what causes objectification at a basic cognitive level

New research suggests that the brain does not objectify people who are in revealing clothing if they’re not posed in a provocative way. The findings, which appear in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, indicates that objectification is mostly related to suggestive postures.

“Sexualization is widely present in mass media with women (and to a lesser extent men) often depicted in sexualized ways. Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) posits sexualization in the mass media is among the main vehicle of objectification of others: Sexualization might lead people to see others as if they were objects instead of people,” said study author Philippe Bernard of the Université libre de Bruxelles.

“But what do we mean by seeing others akin to objects? Philosophers suggested that objectification occurs when a person is reduced to his/her body parts (e.g., Bartky, 1990). Moreover, research in cognitive psychology and neurosciences has documented that human stimuli such as faces and bodies are processed as wholes, as if the focus in on the forest (configural processing), whereas most objects are processed a set of features, as if the focus is on the trees (analytic processing).”

“My research directly tests whether sexualized individuals are likely to be visually processed in a way that resembles the way most objects are visually processed,” Bernard explained.

“Moreover, sexualization is a multi-faceted concept that is not easy to define. I thus examined the role of two key sexualizing factors on objectification, namely skin-to-clothing ratio (the amount of skin that is visible in a given picture) and posture suggestiveness (whether a posture is sexually connoted or not).”

In the study, participants viewed pictures of male and female bodies that varied in posture and skin-to-clothing ratios while the researchers recorded their electrical brain activity. The researchers were particularly interested in a pattern of electrical brain activity, known as the N170 response, that has been shown to be larger during the viewing of faces and bodies than during the observation of other objects.

The brain responses indicated that bodies with less clothing and more suggestive postures were more arousing in general — especially for female bodies. But only bodies displaying suggestive postures were processed more akin to objects.

“Our experiments showed that posture suggestiveness causes cognitive objectification, i.e., a diminished configural processing and increased analytic, piecemeal processing of bodies at a neural level. However, nudity does not prompt cognitive objectification: People do not objectify others on the basis of the amount of skin that is visible,” Bernard told PsyPost.

“Overall, our findings thus show that posture suggestiveness is the key driver of cognitive objectification. This research indicates that images in mass media in which people are depicted in sexually suggestive postures are literally objectifying at a basic cognitive level.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. For example, the bodies included in the study were all relatively young, white, and fit. It is also unclear why suggestive postures are associated with cognitive objectification, but it could be because such postures “render sexual body parts more visually salient” or because they are “used as an indicator of sexual agency and intentionality,” the authors of the study wrote.

The study also has some practical implications. “Although suggestive postures and revealing clothing often go hand-in-hand, it may be possible to decouple these elements in the media and interpersonal interactions. For example, underwear and swimsuit advertisers could promote their products in ways that would reduce risk of objectification by presenting models in revealing clothing, but nonsuggestive posture,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study, “Revealing Clothing Does Not Make the Object: ERP Evidences That Cognitive Objectification is Driven by Posture Suggestiveness, Not by Revealing Clothing“, was authored by Philippe Bernard, Florence Hanoteau, Sarah Gervais, Lara Servais, Irene Bertolone, Paul Deltenre, and Cécile Colin.