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.
In Roberts' study, the women were either asked to try on a swimsuit or a sweater in a makeshift dressing room. After that, they were asked to complete a math test, among other tasks. The women who tried on the swimsuit did worse on the math test. Researchers concluded that trying on the swimsuit made women think about themselves as an object, which drained mental resources and made them perform worse on the test.
Roberts found Gervais' study particularly interesting, but not because women performed worse on the math test. "What I was really fascinated by was the second finding, which was that women who would receive the objectifying gaze wanted to interact more (with the objectifier)," Roberts said. "In our country, sexism tends to be very subtle, benevolent and complimentary, but even if someone's commentary on your body is so-called complimentary, and you want to continue to interact with that person because they complimented you, maybe you're setting yourself up for more overt forms of sexism."
The study provided a few possible explanations for why the objectified participants reported wanting to spend more time with their interviewer: It could be a matter of enjoying flattery. Or, researchers said, they may have interpreted the objectifying gaze as a sign of attraction and wanted to reciprocate it. Or, perhaps most counterintuitive, the women may have wanted to spend more time with their objectifiers to show them that they're not sex objects.
Regardless of women's motivations, Gervais said the study shows that subtle objectification can be a problem, albeit not one that's as well-recognized as blatant slaps on the butt.
"I don't think this is something conscious from people who are perpetrating this or being objectified," Gervais said. "But I think that's even kind of more disturbing. If you can identify it, it would be much easier to combat it."
It's the objectifying gaze's subtleness that has some female coeds, who surely are no strangers to being checked out, wondering – could it really be affecting my work or school performance?
"I guess I've never thought of it negatively like that," said Emily Eucker, a 21-year-old senior at UNL. "But yeah, I guess I can see how (getting checked out) could be distracting in some situations, especially at school. If you are attracted to the person, you might be thinking about things other than taking the test."
"I think if you're getting checked out you're going to lose some concentration for a little bit," said Mykel Gossard, a 21-year-old junior at UNL. "But I don't think that you should be so obsessed with it that you're doing worse on a math test, at least I hope that doesn't happen."
As for women wanting to spend time with their objectifiers, Eucker said, "If you're attracted to them, it makes sense that you want to spend time with them, but there are also women out there who just enjoy flattery for flattery's sake and would do it for that." She added that only in rare circumstances could she imagine a woman seeking out someone who checked her out to prove she's more than a sex object.
Gossard agreed. "Maybe subconsciously it is to prove something, I don't know, but I really think it would just be because I'm flattered or attracted," she said. "If a college girl tells you she doesn't like getting looked at, she's probably lying."
ABCNews.com contributor Teresa Lostroh is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Lincoln, Neb.