Banner by Matt Stoss

Empathy, Objectification, and Gender Based Violence

by Jasmine Pabla

One out of six women have been assaulted in the United States 1. In many of these cases, victims are blamed for their assault by critics who claim they were “asking for it” or “brought it upon themselves.” Society points the finger at the victim’s clothes, rather than the assaulter. Women are blamed for being objectified. Interestingly, advertisements, movies, television shows, and musical artists use this objectification to sell their product. To examine a possible mechanism that might help explain the link between objectification and disproportionate assault against women, researchers at the University of Vienna conducted a study focusing on social pain, empathy, and objectification.

Social pain, in this study, was defined as “unpleasant experience that is associated with actual or potential damage to one’s sense of social connection or social value.” We feel social pain when we feel excluded from a conversation, activity or social group. To simulate this experience, the researchers used the cyberball paradigm. Participants were shown a video in which they are tossing a ball. The participants were put into two conditions: the self-condition and the other-condition. In the self-condition, the participant would watch a video from their own point of view, shown by placing two hands in the bottom center of the screen and would be able to choose who to pass the ball to using a keypad. In the other-condition, participants would only watch three other confederates in the video toss the ball to each other.

Participants were separated further into the social exclusion condition or the social inclusion condition. In the exclusion condition, the participants themselves would not get the ball or they would watch the center confederate not get the ball. This should elicit ‘social pain.’ In the inclusion condition, the participant or the center confederate would receive the ball many times. Each participant was shown each condition (self-included, self-excluded, other-included, other-excluded) in a randomized order.

The last condition applied to the study was objectification of the woman center confederate. In each video, only the center confederate was fully shown. The other confederates and the participant were represented by a pair of hands. In the objectified condition, the confederate wore a short dress, heels, and heavy makeup. In the personalized (non-objectified) condition, the confederate wore pants, flats, a t-shirt and light makeup. After each video, the participant was asked to rate how they felt from ‘very negative’ to ‘very positive’.

The results from this study showed that the cyberball game was able to elicit more positive emotions in the social inclusion condition and elicit more negative emotions in the social exclusion condition. Additionally, participants reported lower positive ratings for objectified women than personalized women in the inclusion condition. Generally, participants rated their emotional experience more similarly to the personalized women’s experiences than those of the objectified women. This relating of emotional experiences determines how much empathy we show for an individual. Thus, the results of these studies show decreased empathy for objectified women compared to personalized women. In addition, preliminary ratings of the center confederates showed that participants found the objectified women to be less intelligent and have less agency.

During the study, researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess which areas of the brain would activate when experiencing social pain. The fMRI results showed increased activation in areas involved in processing social pain for the social exclusion of personalized women, therefore confirming the self-reported emotional experiences of the participants 2.

Previous studies have shown that objectified women are perceived as less intelligent and less moral, but one study conducted in 2010 showed that objectified men elicit similar depersonalization. In this study, participants were asked to rate four individuals (objectified male, non-objectified male, objectified woman, non-objectified woman) on their competence in a hypothetical career and moral status. Like in the previous study, objectified individuals were rated less moral and less competent than their non-objectified counterparts. Participants were also asked to administer fake pain pills that varied in their pain level to the individuals in the photographs. Objectified individuals were more likely to receive the more painful pills. To the researchers’ surprise, objectified males were actually depersonalized more than objectified females 3.

The results from these studies bring up a few factors that could help explain why women bear the brunt of sexual assault and victim shaming. When individuals are objectified, they are seen as less moral, less intelligent, less human and given less empathy. When an individual is seen as less human, the likelihood of committing violent acts against them increases – they become part of an outgroup. For example, during wartime, violence is justified because enemy countries are considered “the other”.

Additionally, women are more objectified than men. Research has shown that male images show more face-ism, or the measure of facial prominence, whereas images of women focus more on their body. Think about every time you go shopping, online or at a mall. Advertisements for women’s clothing tend to be extremely sexualized and objectified compared to men’s advertisements.

The combination of increased objectification of women, and our reduced empathy for objectified individuals might point to important aspects that contribute to disproportionate violence against women. The researchers in the University of Vienna study have made it clear however that “the failure to empathize with sexually objectified targets… may indicate a possible mechanism behind the motivation of gender-based violent behavior.” However, they do not address why this diminishment in empathy occurs. This mechanism is not an innate cause of gender-based violence 2.

Fortunately, the results of these studies shed light on possible steps society can take to decrease the prevalence of gender-based violence. These might include decreasing objectification of women in media and replacing harmful ads with more body positive images. In addition, we can fund more research into studying why this mechanism occurs. With the recent increase in women’s empowerment movements, such as the Women’s march and Time’s Up, advocating for positive media about women is a reachable goal – and now we have the science to back it up.