A study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology has found that women judged solely on their appearance are marked out as less competent than those judged on a broader basis.
In this research, 133 undergraduates – 96 women and 37 men – were asked to judge either Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin or actress Angelina Jolie. Half of the participants were asked to write a few lines on their “thoughts and feelings about this person”, whereas the other half were asked to write their “thoughts and feelings about this person’s appearance.” The students were subsequently asked to rate their subject in terms of various attributes, including competence.
Participants who wrote about Jolie’s or Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed their qualities as a person, but rated these two celebrities far lower in terms of competence, intelligence and capability. Interestingly, this trend applied to both men and women, as well as to liberals, moderates and conservatives.
The authors argue that women who are judged on the basis of their looks are construed as ‘objects’ and are subsequently perceived as less human. Such objectification strips women of characteristics that are regarded as fundamental to being human, such as self determination and unique talents. Without these key human traits, objectified women can easily be brushed aside and judged as incompetent
“Viewing another individual as low in human essence”, write the authors, “reflects a superficial, more surface level evaluation in which people are even likened to robots and automata”.
Somewhat frighteningly, by dehumanizing women people feel more free to be hostile towards them. “Research documents that stripping people of their humanity plays a role in legitimizing aggression”, the authors write.
The Jezebel blog has a more succinct take on the implications of this research for women. “The more we objectify women, judge them as other, and make them less human, the easier it is for all of us to tear them down and determine they’re not good enough”, they say.
Intelligence and beauty are not mutually exclusive, as celebrities such as actress Natalie Portman (Harvard psychology graduate) and model Lily Cole (arts student at Cambridge) aptly demonstrate. What is most disconcerting about this study for me is how pervasive the tendency to judge a woman on her appearance is – regardless of gender or political inclination, participants focusing on looks rated the celebrities as less capable. Underestimating women on the basis of their attractiveness allows society to shift away from being a meritocracy and does all women, conventionally attractive or not, a huge disservice.