Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sexual Violence is Horrible, But First Look at Causes Outside the Brain

"At the brain level, empathy for social exclusion of personalized women recruited areas coding the affective component of pain (i.e., anterior insula and cingulate cortex), the somatosensory components of pain (i.e., posterior insula and secondary somatosensory cortex) together with the mentalizing network (i.e., middle frontal cortex) to a greater extent than for the sexually objectified women. This diminished empathy is discussed in light of the gender-based violence that is afflicting the modern society" (Cogoni et al., 2018).

A new brain imaging paper on Cyberball, social exclusion, objectification, and empathy went WAY out on a limb and linked the results to sexual violence, despite the lack of differences between male and female participants. It's quite a leap from watching a video of women in differing attire, comparing levels of empathy when “objectified” vs. “personalized” women are excluded from the game, and actually perpetrating violence against women in the real world.

modified from Fig. 1 (Cogoni et al., 2018). (A) objectified women in little black dresses; (B) personalized women in pants and t-shirt. Note: the black bar didn't appear in the actual videos.

I'm not a social psychologist (so I've always been a bit skeptical), but Cyberball is a virtual game designed as a model for social rejection and ostracism (Williams et al., 2000). The participant is led to believe they are playing an online ball-tossing game with other people, who then proceed to exclude them from the game. It's been widely used to study exclusion, social pain, and empathy for another's person's pain.

The present version went beyond this simple animation and used 1521 second videos (see still image in Fig. 1) with the “self” condition represented by a pair of hands. More important, though, was a comparison of the two “other person” conditions.

“Each video displayed either a ‘social inclusion’ or a ‘social exclusion’ trial.  ...  At the end of each trial, the participant was asked to rate the valence of the emotion felt by themselves (self condition), or by the other person (other conditions), during the game on a  Likert-type rating scale going from −10 = ‘very negative’ over 0 to +10 = ‘very positive’.”

The participants were 19 women and 17 men, who showed no differences in their emotion ratings. Curiously, the negative emotion ratings on exclusion trials did not differ between the Self, Objectified, and Personalized conditions. So there appears to be no empathy gap for objectified women who were excluded from Cyberball. The difference was on the inclusion trials, when the subjects didn't feel as positively towards women in little black dresses when they were included in the game (in comparison to when women in pants were included, or when they themselves were included).

Fig. 3 (Cogoni et al., 2018).

At this point, I won't delve deeper into the neuroimaging results, because the differences shown at the top of the post were for the exclusion condition, when behavioral ratings were the all same. And any potential sex differences in the imaging data weren't reported.1 Or else I'm confused. At any rate, perhaps an fMRI study of perpetrators would be more informative in the future. But ultimately, culture and social conditions and power differentials (all outside the brain) are the major determinants of violence against women.

When discussing the objectification of women in the present era, it's hard to escape the Harvey Weinstein scandal. One of the main purposes of Miramax2 was to turn young women inro sex objects. Powerful essays by Lupita Nyong’o, Salma Hayek, and Brit Marling (to name just a few) describe the indignities, sexual harassment, and outright assault they endured from this highly influential career-maker or breaker. Further, they describe the identical circumstances, the lingering doubt, the self-blame, and the commodification of themselves. Here's Marling:
Hollywood was, of course, a rude awakening to that kind of idealism. I quickly realized that a large portion of the town functioned inside a soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women (a commodity with an endless supply and an endless demand). The storytellers—the people with economic and artistic power—are, by and large, straight, white men. As of 2017, women make up only 23 percent of the Directors Guild of America and only 11 percent are people of color.
. . .

Once, when I was standing in line for some open-call audition for a horror film, I remember catching my reflection in the mirror and realizing that I was dressed like a sex object. Every woman in line to audition for “Nurse” was, it seemed. We had all internalized on some level the idea that if we were going to be cast we’d better sell what was desired—not our artistry, not our imaginations—but our bodies.

Dacher Keltner wrote about empathy deficits of the rich and famous in Sex, Power, and the Systems That Enable Men Like Harvey Weinstein. But he emphasized the abuse of power: “The challenge, then, is to change social systems in which the abuses of power arise and continue unchecked.” 


1 Although they listed a variety of reasons, the authors didn't do themselves any favors with this explanation for the lack of sex differences:
“Although this issue is still debated, in this study we refer to gender violence as a phenomenon that mainly entails not only active participation, but also passive acceptance or compliance and therefore involving both men and women’ behaviors.”

2 And Hollywood in general...


Cogoni C, Carnaghi A, Silani G. (2018). Reduced empathic responses for sexually objectified women: an fMRI investigation. Cortex  99: 258–272.  {PDF}

Williams KD, Cheung CK, Choi W. (2000). Cyberostracism: effects of being ignored over the Internet. J Pers Soc Psychol. 79:748-62.

Further Reading: The Cyberball Collection (by The Neurocritic)

Suffering from the pain of social rejection? Feel better with TYLENOL®

Vicodin for Social Exclusion

Existential Dread of Absurd Social Psychology Studies

The Mental Health of Lonely Marijuana Users

Acetaminophen Probably Isn't an "Empathy Killer"

Advil Increases Social Pain (if you're male)

Oh, and... Spanner or Sex Object?

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