Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains. The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces. Gender mattered, but not how you might think.
The findings were counter-intuitive to me. Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects. The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source). For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite). Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.
Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary. We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Jennifer Miller — June 27, 2013
Were these the only objects used, and were they presented to everyone in the condition in the same order? I know that the bra catches my eye more than any other object, probably because of it's intimate nature (or who know what) and then I read left to right and then down and left. On the second set of objects I scanned the three objects more than once (trying to figure the relationship I'm guessing) so then when I dropped down to the faces I sort of did the same thing, back and forth. This made me look at the more feminine faces last for the first set but more of a random scanning for the second set. Don't know what it means other than with the objects so unequal, it's impossible to draw conclusions, in my humble opinion.
All of the "feminine" objects would be very strange on a man, but two of the "masculine" objects could easily be used by a woman. All of the feminine objects are adornments, none of them are a thing that is used. The masculine objects are more active, except for the shoes they are something that is done.
Ellen wears shoes like that, hell I wear shoes like that.
I'm excited that someone is working to redefine the social difference between masculine and feminine via ordinary objects, I know this will be attached to IAT (Implicit Association Test) more easily than adjectives spelled out in words (like in the BSRI or PAQ), but it still looks problematic to me.
LynneSkysong — June 27, 2013
I'm confused... or at least this didn't work on me. I see a line of 5 faces that go (from left to right) from feminine to masculine after the feminine gendered objects. Then I see the same 5 faces.after the masculine gendered objects. Are they ALL supposed to look feminine or masculine depending on the priming objects?
Mary @ TwoHappyLambs — June 27, 2013
VERY interesting tidbit.
Brutus — June 28, 2013
The study author's choice of an "adaptation effect" as a potential reason implies that he believes that gender is as basic a facet of perception as color or motion.
Biologists believe that perception of color and motion predates sex, much less gender.
analog2000 — June 28, 2013
Their findings do NOT suggest that "we (humans) place masculinity and femininity in a binary." They suggest that the researchers do. They have no idea WHY they got the results they did. The results themselves do not necessarily imply that gender is binary. Only their conclusion does that, by saying that their results mean that someone is seeing the "opposite" when they look at the faces. Only two things can be opposites. You can't have an opposite on a spectrum (which is what gender really is).
They first decided which objects were masculine and feminine. How did they determine that? The lipstick I can see, but the shoes? Those are pretty uni-sex. And plenty of women ride motorcycles.
Also, what kind of study doesn't use a control? What gender neutral objects did they use to see if the order the faces were presented in is what caused the effects? I think this research is pretty sloppy, and we can't draw any conclusions at all from this.
Ridley — June 28, 2013
It didn't work for me either. I thought the first two faces were feminine, the third was androgynous, and the last two were masculine. After looking at the feminine-gendered objects, the middle androgynous face seemed to be slightly more feminine, and it seemed more masculine after I looked at the masculine-gendered objects.
Gman E. Willikers — June 28, 2013
It is not at all surprising to find evidence that the human brain's default position would attempt to assign gender according to a binary. It doesn't prove that gender is itself is purely binary only that it seems we are quite likely hard-wired to want to sort things along binary lines. Gender is just one of many such things.
mimimur — June 28, 2013
Could also be a by product of gender policing. Since gendered items are associated with caricatures that noone can hope to come close to in real life, realistic faces will inevitably break our expectations.
Alex51324 — June 30, 2013
I know this is beside the point of what the entry is about, but I'm curious about how easy/difficult it is for other people to see differences in the five faces. I can see a difference in the rightmost one, but the other four all look identical to me.
Feminine Things Make You Look More Womanly, Right? | BroadBlogs — July 24, 2013
[...] researchers say this happens as an “adaptation effect,” which Lisa Wade over at Sociological Images describes [...]
painini — August 9, 2013
I saw exactly the disjunct that (this report of) the study suggested.
If the examples shown here are either comprehensive or representative, though, I can say that what stood out to me was the fact that "feminine" objects here took up much less space against the white background, and it's hard to believe some kind of "fruit machine"-esque pupil dilation factor isn't part of it. Maybe?