From Agents to Objects: Sexist Attitudes and Neural Responses to Sexualized Targets

By Mina CikaraJennifer L. EberhardtSusan T. Fiske
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
March2011 Vol. 23 Issue 3 Pages 540–551.

Agency attribution is a hallmark of mind perception; thus, diminished attributions of agency may disrupt social–cognition processes typically elicited by human targets. The current studies examine the effect of perceivers’ sexist attitudes on associations of agency with, and neural responses to, images of sexualized and clothed men and women. In Study 1, male (but not female) participants with higher hostile sexism scores more quickly associated sexualized women with first-person action verbs (“handle”) and clothed women with third-person action verbs (“handles”) than the inverse, as compared to their less sexist peers. In Study 2, hostile sexism correlated negatively with activation of regions associated with mental state attribution—medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, temporal poles—but only when viewing sexualized women. Heterosexual men best recognized images of sexualized female bodies (but not faces), as compared with other targets’ bodies; however, neither face nor body recognition was related to hostile sexism, suggesting that the fMRI findings are not explained by more or less attention to sexualized female targets. Diminished mental state attribution is not unique to targets that people prefer to avoid, as in dehumanization of stigmatized people. The current studies demonstrate that appetitive social targets may elicit a similar response depending on perceivers’ attitudes toward them.