Monday, December 26, 2011

Jonah Lehrer - The Psychology of Nakedness

Jonah Lehrer posted this article a while back on his blog, the Frontal Cortex, which is also reposted at Wired. In an very intriguing study, a group of researchers discovered that when we see only a face we make different assumptions and inferences than if we see the same face with a bit of exposed torso.

It sounds like we might be talking about proof that a little skin leads to objectification, but the researchers disagree. Here is a statement from the lead author, Kurt Gray:
The idea that a body focus can lead to both decreased and increased mind stands in contrast to the term “objectification,” because it suggests that people seen as bodies are not seen as mindless objects but, instead, as experiencers: someone more capable of pain, pleasure, desire, sensation, and emotion but lacking in agency. In other words, focusing on the body does not lead to de-mentalization but to a redistribution of mind.
While this seems to be true in the given study, my guess is that the context is crucial. For example, put the same female face and torso on the cover of Maxxim or Playboy and the inferences made about the body would be very different than if she were on the cover of Shape or People. Or more obviously, put a woman in a bikini on a stage at a Spring Break event in Miami or at pool side in a Miami at an Olympic level swim meet - the inferences will be very different.

The Psychology of Nakedness

The human mind sees minds everywhere. Show us a collection of bouncing balls and we hallucinate agency; a glance at a stuffed animal and we endow it with a mood; I’m convinced Siri doesn’t like me. The point is that we are constantly translating our visual perceptions into a theory of mind, as we attempt to imagine the internal states of teddy bears, microchips and perfect strangers.

Most of the time, this approach works well enough. If I notice someone squinting their eyes and clenching their jaw, I automatically conclude that he must be angry; if she flexes the zygomatic major – that’s what happens during a smile – then I assume she’s happy. The point is that a few cues of body language are instantly translated into a rich mental image. We can’t help but think about what other people are thinking about.

But this intricate connection between mind theorizing and sensory perception can also prove problematic. For instance, when people glance at strangers who look “different” – perhaps they dress funny, or belong to a different ethic group – they endow these strangers with less agency, a fancy term for the ability to plan, act and exert self-control. Or consider a 2010 fMRI experiment that found that when men glance at “sexualized” women they exhibit reduced activation in parts of the brain typically associated with the attribution of mental states. These are obviously terrible habits – a hint of cleavage shouldn’t make us care less about someone’s feelings, nor should a different skin tone – but we mostly can’t help it. We judge books by the cover and minds by their appearance. We are a superficial species.

And this brings me to a fascinating new paper by an all star team of psychologists, including Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom and Lisa Feldman Barrett. The scientists nicely frame the mystery they want to solve:
Do people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove a sweater? This seems absurd: How could removing a piece of clothing change one’s capacity for acting or feeling? In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater—or otherwise revealing flesh—can significantly change the way a mind is perceived. In this article, we suggest that the kind of mind ascribed to another person depends on the relative salience of his or her body—that the perceived capacity for both pain and planned action depends on whether someone wears a sweater or tank-top.
In order to understand why sweaters and tank-tops influence the kind of minds we perceive, it’s important to know about the different qualities we imagine in others. In general, people assess minds – and it doesn’t matter if it’s the “mind” of a pet, iPhone or deity – along two distinct dimensions. First, we grade these minds in terms of agency. (Human beings have lots of agency; goldfish less so.) But we also think of minds in terms of the ability to have experience, to feel and perceive. The psychologists suggest that these dual dimensions are actually a duality, and that there’s a direct tradeoff between the ability to have agency and experience. If we endow someone with lots of feeling, then they probably have less agency. And if someone has lots of agency, then they probably are less sensitive to experience. In other words, we automatically assume that the capacity to think and the capacity to feel are in opposition. It’s a zero sum game.

What does all this have to do with nakedness? The psychologists demonstrated it’s quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency to having a mind interested in experience: all they have to do is take off their clothes. Take the first experiment by Gray, et al., which showed 159 undergraduates a variety of photos. Some of these photos were of an attractive female named Erin, appearing in either a headshot or a bikini. Other students looked at a handsome man named Aaron, glancing at either his face or sculpted bare chest.
After looking at these pictures and reading a brief description of Erin/Aaron, subjects were asked to evaluate the mental capacities of the person. They answered six questions, which took the form, “Compared to the average person, how much is Erin capable of X.” The X was filled in by various agency-related capacities, such as “self-control,”“acting morally,” and “planning” and a slew of experience-related capacities, such as “experiencing pleasure,” “experiencing hunger,” and “experiencing desire.” Participants answered these six questions on a 5-point scale from 1 (Much Less Capable) to 5 (Much More Capable).

It turns out that a glimpse of flesh strongly influences our perception of Erin/Aaron. When the pictures only showed a face, they had lots of agency. But when we saw their torso, we suddenly imagined them as obsessed with experience. Instead of being good at self-control, they were suddenly extremely sensitive to hunger and desire. Same person, same facial expression, same brief description – but a hint of body changed everything.
Read the rest of the article.
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