THE BLOG
03/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Benevolent Sexism: Men Can't Help Themselves, Study Shows

Attention men, I have good news and bad news. The good news? God gave us both private parts, and a brain. The bad news...apparently She only gave us enough blood to operate one at a time.

Last week Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, presented research showing that we men really do depersonalize sexual images of women, and more surprisingly, that this reaction is mostly out of our control, a byproduct of evolution.

In her study, she found that when men are shown pictures of bikini-clad women, it triggers the same area of the brain associated with handling tools! "They are responding to these photographs as if they are responding to objects and not to people with independent agency," Fiske said. Perhaps this finally explains why after perusing through the Victoria's Secret catalog, I often get the strange urge to build a buffet table. Who knew?

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Scantily-clad women also trigger in men the association with the action verbs "push," "handle," and "grab." (Fiske gave no indication whether, following the viewing of these pictures, there was a subsequent association with the words "beer," "scratch," and "football.")

Further, according to the study when certain men view semi-naked women, the part of the brain that is associated with analyzing another person's thoughts, feelings and intentions essentially shuts down. Evidently these men can love, and they can have sex, but not at the same time.

On a positive note, the study indicates that men seeing half-dressed women are much more likely to remember them. Unfortunately, this finding may similarly explain why men easily remember where they last put their hammer.

In summary, it seems these findings indicate women actually do possess a remote control to our Neanderthal button.

Benevolent Sexism
According to Professor Fiske, these findings have implications for the workplace. Unconsciously, she states, men at work may unknowingly engage in "benevolent sexism." "They're not fully conscious responses," Fiske said, "and so people don't know the extent to which they're being influenced."

Fiske suggested that "if there are sexualized pictures of women in the workplace, there may be a spillover effect, perhaps influencing the way people perceive female colleagues." I would go much further, wondering to what degree women who leverage their sexuality in their work dress are actually undermining their professional perception. And even if you dress conservatively at work, it certainly makes you want to reevaluate that sexy Facebook picture of you at the beach (that your boss's boss is gawking at...).

For men, this is further testimony that we must understand and try to consciously avoid the negative biases that nature has programmed into our subconscious. Daniel Goldman, author of Emotional Intelligence, claims that empathy toward others can be learned. Perhaps with attractive women, we need to try just that much harder.

For women, perhaps a degree of fashion caution is warranted before (as a female friend recently described to me) you bring out the "heavy artillery." You certainly seem to be able to directly turn on our attention. But our intelligence?

Not so much.


So, what is the real impact of attractiveness on professional perception? (Not what SHOULD it be?, as this question will quickly spiral toward the conclusion that men are pigs. But what ARE the actual implications in today's working world.)