How Our Brains See Men vs. Women

When you look at people, do you see the whole individual? And do you see them as people? If you instinctively answered “Yes” to both questions, modern scientific research says that you’re wrong, and how you see these people depends very much on whether they are male or female.

While we’d like to think that when we see men and women we perceive them equally, and as individuals, not objects, science tells us differently.

We perceive men and women differently

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found that subjects (both male and female) processed images of men and women that were shown to them in very different ways. When shown images of men, the subjects tended to rely on a type of cognitive processing referred to as “global,” in which the object of perception is recognized and treated as a whole. When shown images of women, the subjects used a more “local” type of cognitive processing, in which the image is treated more as an object, an assemblage of its component parts.

Sarah Gervais, lead author of the study, explains that local processing is how we deal with objects, such as our cars or houses. Theoretically, such local processing is not appropriate for dealing with people, and global processing should prevent us from objectifying them. But it doesn’t. Her research indicated that women tend to be perceived in the same ways that objects are perceived, whereas men are not.

Subjects were shown images of fully clothed men and women of average appearance. Then, after a pause, they were shown two images – one the image they saw before, and one slightly modified to accentuate or isolate a body part thought of as sexual in nature. The participants were then asked to recognize which image they saw before. The subjects recognized the women more consistently when their body parts were isolated; they recognized the men more consistently when their body parts were seen in the context of their entire bodies.

The results were consistent whether it was men viewing the images or women viewing them. So this study seems to verify the eternal complaint that we tend to “objectify” women more than we do men, and see them as a “collection of their parts.”

Sexy women are perceived as objects, whereas sexy men are perceived as people

While this heading sounds as if it’s a feminist complaint, it’s also the result of a similar study recently published in Psychological Science. It also asked both men and women to view images and tested their ability to recognize the images when they saw them later upside down. The neuroscience of doing this has been well established in previous research; we tend to be easily able to recognize objects when they’ve been turned upside down, but we have difficulties recognizing people when the images of them are upside down.

In the study, participants were shown sexy photos of men and women in their underwear. Then there was a one-second pause, and two images were presented – one of them right side up, and the other upside down. Subjects were supposed to select the image that matched the one they had just seen.

Consistently, the participants had more difficulty recognizing the sexy men when they were right side up than they did recognizing them when they were upside down, suggesting that they were seeing them as people. But the participants found that it was just as easy to recognize the sexy women when they were upside down as it was when they were right side up, suggesting that they were perceiving them more as objects. And again, there was no difference in the results whether it was men or women viewing the photos; both saw the sexy men as people, but the sexy women as objects.

What does all this mean?

No one really knows for sure yet. But it does indicate that our brains – whether they are male brains or female brains – tend to process images of men and women very differently. Remember this next time you see an advertisement for a fancy automobile and standing next to it is a beautiful, sexy woman. Chances are your brain perceives both the car and the woman as objects.

Hopefully more studies like this can help us to understand the odd ways that our brains work, and help us to begin to perceive everyone we meet as people, not objects.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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