Study at Princeton University investigates benevolent sexism

By Janene Gibbons
March 26, 2009

Shannon Keough

Research indicates that the areas of a man’s brain that deals with handling tools and performing actions light up when viewing images of women in bikinis.

This research was presented by Princeton University psychology professor Susan Fiske at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The study showed that men don’t consciously have control over this depersonalization of sexual images of women. Experts say this lack of control is a mere byproduct of human evolution and point to the fact that the first male humans main reason to seek fertile women was to spread their genes. Junior criminology major Brian White said, “Men are born that way.”

Full-time data analyst at the University of Pennsylvania and Cabrini sociology professor Tamara Smith-Dyer said not only are evolutionary forces playing a role on how our behavior plays out but social and cultural forces as well.

“The bottom line is, we are driven to behave in ways that we are taught to behave and by biological forces. I would find it difficult to argue then that young men are not taught to depersonalize sexual images of women with exposure to television, magazines, commercials, even ‘family’ television programming and cartoons depict women as depersonalized sexual objects,” Dyer said.

“I would hope that people who read this research would remember that we are in control of the choices that we make around how much we are exposed to images and cultural forces that may lead us to think in these automated negative ways,” Dyer said.

The only people who participated in the first main study were 21 heterosexual men that were Princeton University undergraduates. The study consisted of the men filling out questionnaires to determine whether they had feelings of “benevolent” sexism or “hostile” sexism. Benevolent sexism is the belief that a woman place is in the home, while hostile sexism is defined as the belief that women attempt to dominate men.

Dyer explains that the sample is very biased. “Including 21 undergraduate males from Princeton does not provide a representative sample of the population. For example, the age is limited. Race and socioeconomic status will be skewed in this sample as well.”

“The sample size, 21, is very small. While the scientific community typically holds a minimum acceptable sample size to be 30, which is more than the current study’s sample size, statisticians including myself know that even 30 is very limited and samples should be much larger than this when possible in order to prevent ‘false positive’ study results,” Dyer said.

While viewing women in bikinis, the part of the brain that deals with another persons thoughts feelings and actions was inactive in those men who had the highest hostile sexism scores.

A supplementary study that was done on both male and female undergraduates proved that men are more likely to link women wearing bikinis with first person action verbs such as “push,” “handle” and “grab.” When the men look at fully clothed women they associate them with the third person forms such as she “pushes,” “handles” and “grabs.” The implication of this study was that the men viewed women who were fully clothed as in control of their own actions.

“The way a person dresses shows how they want others to view them. Women in bikinis want men to look at them, while fully clothed women want to be noticed professionally,” Patrick McGowan, senior English and communication major, said.

According to Fiske, the study’s boarder implications found that although there is a similar dehumanizing factor in drug addicts and homeless people as there is to women in bikinis people usually tend to avoid the homeless and drug addicts where quite the opposite is true of women in bikinis.

“I honestly think it depends on the sex appeal that the girl in the bikini gives off,” Sophomore education major Angela Donato said.

“I don’t think they [men] view us as objects. I think there is a physical attraction there,” Kerri Dougherty, sophomore communication major, said.

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Janene Gibbons

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