We feel more protective over women AND men in skimpy clothing – but think they're less competent too
If you've ever looked at women bar-hopping in miniskirts and felt like rescuing the poor shivering souls, you're not alone.
And it's not just sympathetic men who want to put a protective arm around women's shoulders either. Women also feel like protecting members of the opposite sex when they see them wearing revealing outfits, according to a new study.
Researchers found that both men and women see those in revealing attire as sensitive – and they discovered we see them as less competent too.
In need of protection Women who wear skimpy clothing, like these ladies on New Year's Eve in Liverpool, seem more in need of looking after than those who cover up
Psychologist Kurt Gray, of the University of Maryland in the United States, said it would be absurd to think people's mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove clothing – but that is just what happens.
Professor Gray said: 'In six studies, we show that taking off a sweater – or otherwise revealing flesh – can significantly change the way a mind is perceived.'
Past research, feminist theory and parental admonishments all have long suggested that when men see a woman wearing little or nothing, they focus on her body and think less of her mind.
However, the new findings by Prof Gray and his colleagues expand and change our understanding of how paying attention to someone's body can alter the way both men and women view the opposite sex.
He said: 'An important thing about our study is that, unlike much previous research, ours applies to both sexes.
'It also calls into question the nature of objectification because people without clothes are not seen as mindless objects, but they are instead attributed a different kind of mind.
'We also show that this effect can happen even without the removal of clothes.
But the same applies for men too: When men, like Borat, pictured, wear revealing clothing, they also make us want to protect them… as well as appearing less competent
'Simply focusing on someone's attractiveness, in essence concentrating on their body rather than their mind, makes you see her or him as less of an agent – someone who acts and plans – more of an experiencer.'
Traditional research and theories on objectification suggest that people picture the mind of others as somewhere between the full mind of a normal human and the mindlessness of an inanimate object.
The idea of objectification is that looking at someone in a sexual context – such as in pornography – leads people to focus on physical characteristics, turning them into an object without a mind or moral status.
However, recent findings indicate that rather than looking at others on a scale from object to human, we see others as having two distinct aspects of mind: agency and experience.
Agency is the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control, whereas experience is the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions. Various factors – including the amount of skin shown – can shift which type of mind we see in another person.
In multiple experiments, the researchers found further support for the two kinds of mind view.
When men and women in the study focused on someone's body, perceptions of agency – self-control and action – were reduced, and perceptions of experience – emotion and sensation – were increased.
Watch out at work: The study found that when people wear revealing clothing, it strips him or her of competence and leadership, potentially impacting job evaluations
Prof Gray and his colleagues suggest that this effect occurs because people unconsciously think of minds and bodies as distinct, or even opposite, with the capacity to act and plan tied to the mind and the ability to experience or feel tied to the body.
According to Prof Gray, their findings indicate that the change in perception that results from showing skin is not all bad.
He said: 'A focus on the body, and the increased perception of sensitivity and emotion it elicits might be good for lovers in the bedroom.'
The study also found that a body focus can actually increase moral standing.
Although those wearing little or no clothes – or otherwise represented as a body – were seen to be less morally responsible, they also were seen to be more sensitive to harm and hence deserving of more protection.
Prof Gray said: 'Others appear to be less inclined to harm people with bare skin and more inclined to protect them.
'In one experiment, for example, people viewing male subjects with their shirts off were less inclined to give those subjects uncomfortable electric shocks than when the men had their shirts on.'
However, Prof Gray noted that in work or academic contexts, where people are primarily evaluated on their capacity to plan and act, a body focus clearly has negative effects.
Seeing someone as a body strips him or her of competence and leadership, potentially impacting job evaluations.
Prof Gray added: 'Even more than robbing someone of agency, the increased experience that may accompany body perceptions may lead those who are characterised in terms of their bodies to be seen as more reactive and emotional, traits that may also serve to work against career advancement.'
He said even the positive aspects of a body focus – such as an increased desire to protect from harm – can be ultimately harmful, pointing to 'benevolent sexism' in which men oppress women under the guise of protecting them.
The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.