Friday, February 20, 2009

Spanner or Sex Object?

Sex objects: Pictures shift men's view of women

by Ian Sample, Chicago

Men are more likely to think of women as objects if they have looked at sexy pictures of females beforehand, psychologists said yesterday.

Researchers used brain scans to show that when straight men looked at pictures of women in bikinis, areas of the brain that normally light up in anticipation of using tools, like spanners and screwdrivers, were activated.

Scans of some of the men found that a part of the brain associated with empathy for other peoples' emotions and wishes shut down after looking at the pictures.

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, said the changes in brain activity suggest sexy images can shift the way men perceive women, turning them from people to interact with, to objects to act upon.
That was remarkably even-handed coverage from of an unpublished study that was presented at the recent AAAS Meeting in Chicago. A search of the meeting website turned up this abstract:

Within session:
Envy Up and Contempt Down: Neural and Emotional Signatures of Social Hierarchies
Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Mina Cikara

Ann Marie Russell
People think and feel about each other along two apparently universal dimensions. Warmth answers “friend or foe?” (intentions). Competence answers “what can you do?” (can the other enact those intentions). These fundamental dimensions drive emotions and behavior, all resulting from social structural relationships of interdependence and status. Most relevant, perceived status confers perceived competence, a ringing endorsement of meritocracy. Our new neural work goes beyond verbal report to document social cognition’s earliest moments. Laboratory and imaging studies focus on low-warmth, allegedly competitive outgroups, differing only in status: (a) low-status, allegedly exploitative outgroups (e.g., undocumented immigrants, homeless people, welfare recipients), who elicit disgust and contempt, and (b) high-status, allegedly exploitative outgroups (e.g., Asians, Jews, minority professionals, career women), who elicit envy and jealousy. Intergroup envy and contempt have consequences.

OK, the abstract doesn't specifically mention the tool/bikini experiment, so we have to rely on newspaper articles and quotes from the first author. Judging from the first 4 paragraphs of the Guardian article, Fiske's conclusions rely on the logical fallacy of reverse inference - one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity in neuroimaging experiments. How do we know that the "sex object" neural response was related to tool use? Did the experiment require the subjects to use tools? Did it explicitly ask them to anticipate using tools? How about watching others use tools? The latter condition might activate regions containing mirror neurons, if you're a believer in that sort of thing. In fact, one recent study (Mouras et al., 2008) claimed that Mirror neurons control erection response to porn (although The Neurocritic was skeptical: Mirror Neurons Control Hard-ons?).

In an earlier study, Ponsetti et al. (2006) showed pictures of male and female sexually aroused genitals to gay and straight male and female participants [see An "Endophenotype" For Sexual Orientation? for a full description of that study]. Those authors summarized their results as follows:
Consistent with our prediction, the ventral striatum and the centromedian thalamus, showed a stronger neuronal response to preferred relative to non-preferred stimuli. Likewise, the ventral premotor cortex which is a key structure for imitative (mirror neurons) and tool-related (canonical neurons) actions showed a bilateral sexual preference-specific activation, suggesting that viewing sexually aroused genitals of the preferred sex triggers action representations of sexual behavior.
Going back to Fiske et al. (unpublished), we're a little short on methodological details, and yet the credulous press coverage and outraged blog posts were taking the results at face value. What did the experiment actually do, and what were the results? As summarized in
In the study, Fiske's team put straight men into an MRI brain scanner and showed them images of either clothed men and women, or more scantily clad men and women. When they took a memory test afterwards, the men best remembered images of bikini-clad women whose heads had been digitally removed.

The brain scans showed that when men saw the images of the women's bodies, activity increased in part of the brain called the premotor cortex, which is involved in urges to take action. The same area lights up before using power tools to do DIY. "It's as if they immediately thought to act on theses bodies," Fiske said.

Wow! "Urges to take action" that specifically relate to using power tools!! So by that logic, maybe the male subjects were all ax murderers....

...or maybe they imagined starting up the chainsaw for their latest massacre. The women's bodies were already headless, now weren't they... You can see where this is going. You can make up just about any story, and it would fit these data. Perhaps the guys were trying to inhibit sexual arousal, for example. But it's sheer speculation at the moment, since I haven't read the p/reprint.

And for the grand finale, do we have a case of voodoo correlations in social neuroscience (Vul et al., 2009)?
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.
Ugh. So to Comrade PhysioProf and Pandagon and other critics of evolutionary psychology who have commented on this study: the fMRI results might not even have anything to do with the objectification of women.

More coverage is available at the Daily Princetonian (Men view half-naked women as objects, study finds), where we have more overreaching...
“I think [the study] does relate to the effects of having pornography and sexualized images of women around and in the media because they spill over into how people treat women in general,” Fiske said, adding that these images may dehumanize women and encourage men to see them as objects. “You have to be aware of the effect of these images on people,” Fiske explained. “They’re not neutral. They do have an effect on how people think about other women.”

...and at the 60 Second Psych podcast at Scientific American, where you can hear Fiske talk about her research:
Fiske explained that the areas, the premotor cortex and posterior middle temporal gyrus [which is involved in many things other than tool use], typically light up when one anticipates using tools, like a screwdriver. "I’m not saying that they literally think these photographs of women are photographs of tools per se, or photographs of non-humans, but what the brain imaging data allow us to do is to look at it as scientific metaphor. That is, they are reacting to these photographs as people react to objects."

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At February 20, 2009 10:04 AM, Blogger bluescrubbie said...

In consolation, women are viewed as a _really_coveted_ tool.

At February 20, 2009 4:00 PM, Blogger JLK said...

What we need to know is whether Fiske also put straight women into the scanner and showed them pictures of scantily clad, headless men.

Because one of 2 things could be happening here - 1) men really do view nearly-naked women as objects, or 2) removing the head and making an image sexual causes the brain to see an object - an invitation for sexual action. If we see this effect in both sexes, even if to different degrees, followed by altered perceptions of the opposite sex after viewing such images, then we have a major effect worth writing about in the media.

If the women do not show the same effect, then we have an argument here.

At June 26, 2009 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, while i haven't read the study. The study would probably make more sense, if they used a control setup where.
1) they show neutral pictures of people
2) they show pictures of objects
3) they show pictures of bikini clad women (headless)
4) they show pictures of bikini clad women (with heads)

And compare the outcome of all these... while I understand your criticism to the scientific technique .. there might be something to it.. but it looks like the researcher just tried to make it "popular" in the media by making a controversial statement.. :)

At March 06, 2010 1:37 PM, Blogger Epiphenomenal Gremlin said...

As a participant in this "study", I can confirm that inhibiting sexual arousal was definitely on my mind throughout the whole thing. The more so because 1) my trial was being run by the lovely Miss Cikara (who looks like Minka Kelly) who had been my preceptor in a previous term, and 2) I was wearing gym shorts.

At March 06, 2010 2:13 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for sharing your amusing experiences as a participant in this study!


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