When a guy "harmlessly" checks out a woman, it may not be so harmless after all, according to a first-of-its kind study done by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University.
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that checking women out has adverse effects," said Sarah Gervais, an assistant professor of psychology at UNL and the study's lead author, "but there haven't really been any empirical studies to prove that."
That is, until now, thanks to intriguing research from Gervais and her team. The study is far from typical: it begins with an excerpt of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and ends with a conclusion that getting "checked out" is detrimental to women. But its subject matter is no less significant.
Earlier studies have found that, on average, women experience subtle forms of sexual objectification once or twice a week, which researchers say can lead to body preoccupation and an inability to fully enjoy activities.
In Gervais' study, published in the March issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, a group of Penn State undergraduates -- 67 women and 83 men -- got together for what they thought was research about teamwork. As it turned out, they were part of the first study to look at how the "objectifying gaze" (flowery language for "getting checked out") affected men's and women's cognition.
It was all set up like an interview. A research assistant interviewed an undergraduate of the opposite sex. If the interviewee was a member of the control group, the research assistant maintained normal eye contact throughout the conversation.
For the test group, however, the interviewer "checked out" the interviewee several times (with a full "once over" and then several glances at his or her chest). To do this scientifically and not downright perversely, the oglers underwent about 30 hours of training to the get the look and timing just right. After the interview participants were given 10 minutes to complete a set of math problems.
The results? On average, the women who weren't ogled got six out of 12 questions correct, while those who were checked out averaged just under five. The one-question difference is statistically significant, which led researchers to conclude that being objectified hindered the ogled women's concentration. Although past studies have shown that men are increasingly self-conscious about their chests, getting checked out apparently had no effect on men because results from the control and test groups were more or less the same.
Something called "stereotype threat" may be to blame, at least partially, for the objectified women's poorer performance, according to the study. Because women are stereotyped as being bad at math, the women in the study may have been anxious about confirming that stereotype and, counterproductively, lost concentration and confirmed it.
It's not surprising that getting checked out would impair concentration, said Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor of psychology at Colorado College who researches objectification. Roberts' own 1997 study found that women's self-objectification negatively affected math scores.