New research suggests that people feel less empathy toward the experiences of sexually objectified women compared to non-sexualized women. The findings were published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
Violence against women is a widespread public health issue that is present around the globe. Adding to the issue is the fact that harassment against women often goes unacknowledged by cultural scripts that accept or even promote violence against women. Scholars have suggested that the downplaying of women’s experiences is partly driven by reduced empathy toward sexually objectified women.
In a previous study, Carlotta Cogoni and her team found evidence for this weakened empathy response toward sexualized women using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. The researchers found that people showed decreased activation in parts of the brain involved in empathy, when witnessing a woman in revealing clothing being ostracized compared to witnessing a woman in non-revealing clothing being ostracized.
Prompted by these findings, the researchers next wanted to examine whether the objectification of a target may be influencing the extent that a subject accesses similar cognitive, perceptual, and affective processes when witnessing a target’s experience. This theory, called the shared representations account of empathy, suggests that people engage in similar processes when experiencing an emotion first-hand as they do when feeling empathy toward another person experiencing that emotion.
In a first study, the researchers split 170 men and women into three different groups. All subjects participated in two runs during the experiment. In the first run, all participants went through a series of trials where they were shown images on a computer screen of pleasant objects (e.g., feather), neutral objects (e.g., branch), or unpleasant objects (e.g., spider). As each subject was presented with an image, their left hand was touched with a similar object. The participants then rated the extent that the touch experience was pleasant or unpleasant.
On the second run, subjects saw the same images on the screen, but this time another target received the touch experiences. Depending on the condition, the target was either a female mannequin, a real woman dressed in a sexualized manner, or a real woman dressed in a non-sexualized manner. The subjects were asked to judge the emotional experience of the target during each touch experience.
The researchers found that the similarity between the subjects’ emotional ratings for their own touch experiences compared to their ratings of the targets’ experiences differed depending on the condition. The similarity between self and other ratings was lowest when the target was the mannequin and highest when the target was the non-sexualized woman. The similarity of self and other ratings when the target was a woman dressed in a sexualized fashion fell somewhere in the middle.
A second experiment explored shared representations within a different context — social pain. Here, subjects participated in a ball-tossing game and then witnessed a confederate who was either sexualized or non-sexualized playing the game. In line with the first study, the subjects’ emotional ratings during the game were more similar to their ratings of the confederate’s emotions when the confederate was dressed in a non-sexualized fashion compared to a sexualized fashion.
The authors note that neither study showed a gender difference in empathy responses toward sexualized and non-sexualized women. They suggest that while men and women both show a decreased empathy response to sexualized women, it is likely due to different processes.
“We can speculate that the male decreased empathic reaction toward sexualized women could be driven by an increased sexual attraction and enhanced focus of attention on the woman’s physical appearance, thus hampering the shared representation process,” Cogoni and colleagues suggest. “On the other hand, the decreased empathic reaction toward sexualized women in female participants could be guided by an avoidance reaction from a typology of women that they want to be differentiated from.”
The researchers say their findings shed light on the issue of sexual harassment against women, revealing that men and women showed a reduced empathy response to sexualized women. They propose that future studies should explore how this reduced empathy response may translate to behavioral consequences.
The study, “Reduced shared emotional representations toward women revealing more skin”, was authored by Carlotta Cogoni, Andrea Carnaghi, and Giorgia Silani.