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With bare skin, our empathy fades - with far-reaching consequences


Sexualized representation with far-reaching consequences on perception

Sex sells - many industries have used this motto and the appearance of bare skin is almost ubiquitous. A current study examined the effects of sexualized representation, especially the emphasis on secondary sexual characteristics, on people's perception. Empathic feelings and brain reactions are reduced when we observe the emotions of women depicted in a sexualized way.

The research team led by Giorgia Silani from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna investigated the consequences of sexual representation. In women, for example, it had been shown that as a result of the sexualized representation, important social characteristics were denied by their fellow human beings. In the current study, the scientists were able to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to demonstrate that the brain areas that are based on empathy also undergo a change in activation.

Interpersonal perception changed

Sexualization (or sexual objectification), according to social psychologists, clearly affects the way we perceive an individual. It is known from previous studies that sexualized persons are partially denied certain human characteristics, such as morality or responsibility. According to the researchers, the conclusion that the feelings of the sexualized persons are perceived differently was obvious.

Examination of brain activity

In the current study, the research team led by Giorgia Silani from the University of Vienna in cooperation with Carlotta Cogoni from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA-ISAS) in Trieste and Andrea Carnaghi from the University of Trieste examined how emotions are perceived by the Others changed in women depicted in a sexualized way. To do this, they also analyzed the subjects' brain activity using MRI scans. The results of the study were published in the specialist magazine "Cortex".

Following the sexualized representation analyzed

“The use of sexualized representations, especially in Western society, is common to cause emotions - especially pleasure; with the aim of increasing the hedonistic value of the displayed object, as happens, for example, in advertising ”; reports the University of Vienna. In other words "sex sells". The current study investigated what consequences this sexualized representation can have on empathic perception by means of various experiments in which the objective activation of the brain was determined in addition to the subjective sensation.

Clothing with a significant impact

The research team found in their experiments that simply modifying the clothing (with more or less visible parts of the body / skin) changes the empathic feelings towards the women depicted. "The empathy for women who were depicted in a sexually objectified way was lower compared to personified women," reports University of Vienna.

Reduced activation of the empathy network in the brain

Study leader Giorgia Silani explains that the reduction of empathic feelings towards sexually objectified women was shown in a reduced activity of those brain areas, which are the basis of the empathy. "This suggests that the test participants had a reduced ability to share the emotions of the sexualized women," continued Silani. The researcher suspects that "the underlying mechanism for this reaction is a reduced activation of the brain's empathy network." (Fp)

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