The next time you see a guy caught like a rabbit in headlights at the nearest pair of knockers, don't roll your eyes. Instead, spare a thought for the woman next to him, who will also be - more often than not - unable to take her eyes off the deep V-neck.
Because, on the contrary to what society would have us believe, it isn't just men who are unable to resist oogling at the nearest cleavage.
According to a recent study, women are just as guilty of the "objectifying gaze" as men - only we seem to get away with it.
Psychologists Sarah Gervais and Michael Dodd employed eye-tracking technology to intricately map the visual behaviour of both men and women as they viewed images of 10 different females with different body types.
When asked to focus on a woman's appearance, study participants - regardless of gender - tended to move their eyes to and then dwelled on a woman's breasts and other sexualised body parts.
Although male and female patterns were largely similar, male participants regarded curvy women more positively than women with fewer curves, whereas female participants viewed these women similarly.
The researchers fitted 65 university students with an eye-tracking device, asking them to look at 30 photographs of 10 women and rate either the appearance or personality of the woman in each picture. Each original image was manipulated to enhance or decrease the woman's sexualised body parts in an attempt to determine whether specific body types were more or less likely to be objectified.
Though the results were consistent with anecdotal expectations of gaze behaviour, Gervais said she was surprised with some of the findings, especially how strongly women's visual patterns suggest they objectify other women.
"We do have a slightly different pattern for men than women, but when we looked at their overall dwell times – how long they focused on each body part – we find the exact same effects for both groups," Gervais said in a statement. "Women, we think, do it often for social comparison purposes."
Whereas men were fast to fixate on both the bodies and faces of female targets, women in some circumstances were more likely to focus quickly on faces.
Another key finding related to the role of body shape. Even when study instructions encouraged the participants to focus on the personality of the female target – a manipulation that would seem likely to lead to additional focus on the images' faces – women with hourglass figures were perceived more positively than women with straighter figures by male participants, the researchers found.
Objectifying gazes, of course, can have negative consequences: Prior research shows that when women are objectified, they are perceived to be less friendly, not as intelligent or competent or less moral.
"It can undermine (women's) work performance. It can cause them to self-silence and it's related to increased perceptions of sexual harassment," Gervais said. "If you think about all of the negative consequences, figuring out what's triggering all of those consequences, that's the first step toward stopping it from happening."
Dodd said the study's use of both personality- and appearance-focused groups shows that the behaviour can be changed with self-awareness.
"By characterising the manner in which people fixate on the body when engaging in objectifying behaviour, it also becomes possible to determine methods of reducing this behaviour. That's what the personality manipulation part of the study did – that's a huge positive," Dodd said. "It's not as though looking at the body of someone has to be, or is, a default behaviour. It just may be the case that cognitive control is required to engage in more appropriate, and less damaging, visual behaviour."
The study was published in the academic journal Sex Roles and researchers, who come from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said could provide the first steps toward addressing objectifying gazes and limiting their effects on women.
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