The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

The Perceived Interchangeability of Attractive Men and Women

Sexual Objectification: Who is This Person Again?

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Harvard University) outlined several ways in which a person can be objectified - that is - be stripped off their humanness as if they are an object. One aspect of objectification she described was fungibility, which she defines basically as the extent to which someone is viewed as replaceable and interchangeable.

Drawing on these ideas, psychologists (Sarah Gervais, Teresa Vescio and Jill Allen) designed an experiment in which participants viewed images of men and women. Each image was either a man or woman with an "ideal" body size or a with an average body size. After these images, participants were given a surprise matching task in which they had to match the faces they had viewed to their correct bodies.

Participants in this study made the most errors for attractive men, attractive women and average women. That is, the faces and bodies of these people were seen as more replaceable than those of average body sized men in this study.

These findings could suggest that people were focused more on the body of women (attractive or not) and men (attractive men) and this caused them to later be worse at matching these bodies to their faces. This was not measured, however.

Whatever the cause, these studies suggest that people perceive the faces and bodies of women and attractive men as more interchangeable and replaceable.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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